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Burnett's latest gem continues strong pitching trend

Ace takes shutout into ninth, bolstering one of baseball's best staffs

CHICAGO -- In projecting high-end prospect Gerrit Cole's eventual Major League debut, fans probably envisioned the right-hander coming to the Pirates' rescue.

Forget that. When Cole makes his big league debut Tuesday, he will have his hands full just trying to keep up.

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The Pirates have arguably the Majors' most impenetrable pitching staff, hard to hit against and sometimes impossible to score on. The Bucs' opponents average of .221 through 62 games is by far baseball's lowest, and they lead the big leagues with 10 shutouts.

On Saturday, ace A.J. Burnett came within two outs of No. 11 and the second in as many days. A two-run homer by Alfonso Soriano with one out in the ninth spoiled Burnett's shutout and complete game, but nothing could mar a 6-2 victory over the Cubs.

Notwithstanding his first win in over a month -- blame weak run support for that -- Burnett was bummed to have had to leave the mound following Soriano's homer.

"One reason I was so ticked off ... you program yourself and want to finish what you start," said Burnett, who was trying to turn in the Bucs' first complete game since his own here last July 31. "That's the only ball I hung and [Soriano] did with it what you're supposed to. You need to bury that pitch, and I didn't."

Burnett was so focused on finishing the job, he was upset just because pitching coach Ray Searage made a mound visit with a 2-1 count on Soriano. Whatever Burnett said to Searage was accompanied by an animated wave of his glove toward the Pirates' dugout.

"That's the competitor in A.J. and what you love about him," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Ray was just trying to take care of him and the team. It's that edge that you love about A.J."

Another thing to love about the veteran right-hander is how he protected a rare early lead.

A four-run lead by the fourth inning against Pirates nemesis Jeff Samardzija certainly seemed insurmountable in the hands of Burnett.

Pedro Alvarez drove in three runs, two on a homer onto Sheffield Avenue beyond the right-field stands, as the Pirates kept alive a chance to finish a fourth consecutive road trip with a record of .500 or better. They are 2-3 on this swing through Atlanta and the North Side, with Sunday's series finale against the Cubs remaining.

Russell Martin added insurance with a milestone two-run homer in the eighth off reliever Hector Rondon. Martin's 100th career home run made it a 6-0 game, before Soriano hit a two-run shot to chase Burnett. Lefty Tony Watson came in to get the final two outs.

"A hundred is cool, but to me, it's just a number. I've never really been a stats rat," Martin said. "As an add-on, though ... definitely nice. It gets you away from that one-pitch tie on a grand slam, gives you a little breather.

"But it would've been nice to get a shutout, too, for sure."

The Bucs got in some satisfying licks against a recent and frequent tormentor, preying on the right-handed Samardzija for their 37th win of the season.

As much as Samardzija had dominated the Pirates, this was surprisingly his first start against them in Wrigley Field. Considering Samardzija is 4-1 with an 0.73 ERA in 37 innings at PNC Park, Hurdle was asked pregame whether a different approach in Wrigley Field might help.

"Only if he leaves the ball up," Hurdle said, "and the wind is blowing out."

One out of two was enough: The wind was blowing in, albeit limply, but the Pirates saw enough elevated pitches to do damage. They scored more runs (four) off Samardzija in four innings here than they have in those previous 37 (three) in their own park.

Alvarez bookended it with a run-scoring single in the second and a two-run homer, No. 13, in the fourth. Between, Travis Snider's third-inning single scored Starling Marte, who singled and stole his way into scoring position.

"They're a good lineup," Samardzija said. "They come with a great approach every day, and I feel like when I face the Pirates -- we've seen each other a lot -- it comes down to that individual day and who's executing their game plan better. Today, they were patient with me and got some pitches to hit. When I had success against them before, I felt I had them on their heels, whereas today, they had me on my heels."

"Our guys took very good swings throughout the game," Hurdle said. "Getting that quick cushion, then Pedro doubling it up and continuing with Russell later ... just what we were looking for."

Samardzija went six innings, allowing the four runs on eight hits, striking out seven and walking one.

Alvarez's homer was his sixth in 22 day games, as he adds on to his afternoon delights of 2012, when his 18 day-time home runs were the Pirates' most since Willie Stargell's 19 in 1971.

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

Pittsburgh Pirates, Pedro Alvarez, A.J. Burnett, Russell Martin