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Gritty Burnett puts on clinic without plus stuff

WASHINGTON -- During a season in which he has authored one masterful performance after another, A.J. Burnett was at his best when he was on the run.

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Burnett delivered 98 pitches to the Nationals in Friday night's 4-1 loss that ended the Pirates' eight-game winning streak, and only 21 of them were from a windup, as he was circled by 15 runners in 6 2/3 innings -- and that doesn't even count the racing Presidents and Pierogies.

Yet, he wouldn't let the Nationals run away.

"You have to keep attacking, try not to give in, keep going at them," said Burnett.

Despite surrendering 14 hits -- one more than in any of his previous 417 Major League starts -- Burnett kept the Bucs within striking distance. He didn't win this game, only his teammates' admiration and gratitude.

"Incredibly impressive," said fellow starter Jeff Locke. "It didn't matter how many hits they seemed to get, he never let them get them at the right time. Our job is to come out of the game with the team still in it, and that's where he was."

After an improbable run of 11 flawlessly-pitched games that moved manager Clint Hurdle to speak in superlatives, ironically Burnett inspired him to do so again.

"I don't think I've ever seen a pitcher go into the seventh giving up double-digit hits like that," Hurdle said, "and have the game still in hand. It wasn't his 'A' stuff. But his will to compete got things done and kept us in the ballgame."

Rather than be without his stuff, Burnett bemoaned having too much of it -- definitely when it came to the ole mustard. He felt too strong and threw too hard, which made the ball move too little.

"Back in the day, it would have been fun," he said of finding a couple of extra notches on the fastball, "but that's not me anymore. I was able to get away some with the extra velocity, but balls were flat, drifting across the plate, not getting the movement down and away like I'm normally capable of doing."

Respecting his offspeed weapons, like the 2-to-8 curve that has been his main strikeout pitch, the Nationals were also determined to not let Burnett pull that out of his holster. He normally sets up the curve hammer with fastballs, but the fastballs were getting drilled.

Twelve of Washington's 14 hits off Burnett came on either the first or second pitch.

"He still attacked the best he could. But those guys were swinging early and a lot of their balls fell in," said Locke, one of those younger pitchers who are always said to be learning from examples set by veterans such as Burnett.

Burnett delivered a master class Friday night.

"Talk about maintaining focus … any pitcher could learn from that," Hurdle said. "He did the best he could with what he had and where he was. He's got so much experience and been through so many things. All night it seemed to be, 'OK, so what? Now what? What do I need to do to get out of it?"

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer and on his podcast.
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