CINCINNATI — A.J. Burnett took matters into his own hands and he had a baseball in his dominating right hand.
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But instead of using it as a lethal weapon to bury into the sides of some of the Cincinnati Reds, Burnett kept it out of their reach, pitching a three-hitter for 8 2/3 innings as his Pittsburgh Pirates buried the Reds, 6-2.
Burnett (14-3) spoke the way he needed to speak, with fastballs and sliders and changeups in a game that might have saved his team’s season when it looked as if the Reds were poised to disappear over the horizon, their tail lights flickering into the distance.
The Reds had beaten the Pirates Friday and Saturday to extend their lead in the National League Central from 3½ games to 5½ games, threatening to make it 6½ with a three-game sweep.
And along the way it appeared the Reds were intimidating the Pirates, hitting two batters with no retaliation.
When Reds starter Mike Leake hit Pittsburgh outfielder Josh Harrison Saturday, Burnett was in the dugout making threatening gestures toward several Reds players.
Some expected Burnett to play policeman on the mound Sunday with some message pitches.
Even though the Reds hit two more Pirates batters Sunday, Burnett stood as silent witness, mostly silencing Cincinnati bats.
After Drew Stubbs homered in the third to tie it, 2-2, Burnett retired the next 18 in a row, including a four-pitch 1-2-3 seventh inning.
But he issued a two-out, 3-and-2 walk to Jay Bruce in the ninth and when he also walked Ryan Ludwick on a 3-and-2 pitch, manager Clint Hurdle went to closer Joel Hanrahan. He made sure the Pirates closed within 4½ games of the Reds, retiring Todd Frazier on a pop up to right field.
Because they had won 22 of their previous 25 games, there was almost an aura of invincibility surrounding the Reds recently.
“You get greedy when you start winning every ballgame,” said manager Dusty Baker. “So two out of three doesn’t appear good enough, but we’ll take that and a 5-2 homestand. We wanted more, you always want more, but we won two of three and gained a game with three less games on the schedule.”
But while the Reds own a 4½-game lead, they still have six games remaining with the Pirates, including the last three games of the season in Pittsburgh.
“This is going to be this intense the right of the way,” Baker said. “We have a lot of games with the Pirates, but we have to beat everybody else, too, the way we have been. Then we’ll worry about the Pirates when they come up again on the schedule.”
And they’ve accomplished all this winning with first baseman Joey Votto on the disabled list and played all three games against the Pirates without Brandon Phillips.
“We hope to get Votto back in the next 10 days to two weeks and get Phillips back soon so we’re back to full strength,” Baker added. “Right now our guys are fighting and clawing and I’m proud of what they’ve done so far.”
The Reds hit the road this week with three games in Milwaukee, beginning Monday, and four in Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs.
“We write this one off today and hit the road,” Baker said. “I want my guys to think about winning every day, never get tired of winning. What I’m still trying to figure out is how come the highs are not as high as the lows are low.”
Right now the highs have ruled in the Reds clubhouse — 24 games over .500 and riding the winning crest.