PITTSBURGH — It all comes down to Game #162.
A week ago, it seemed highly unlikely that the final game of the season would carry any meaning. The Pirates were 4.5 games up on the Cubs for the top Wild Card position with six games left to play coming into the season’s final week.
Instead, the Cubs have rattled off seven straight victories while the Pirates have turned in a 2-3 week. Going into tomorrow’s finale, the Pirates are now left with just a one game lead in the battle for home-field advantage for Wednesday night’s Wild Card game.
Tonight, A.J. Burnett pitched in the final regular season game of his heralded career, but struggled out of the gate. He spotted the Reds an early 2-0 lead in the first inning, an inning in which he allowed three hits, made an error and walked one batter. Burnett did not have a good feel for his curve ball tonight, but was able to turn to his newly refined weapon, his change-up. After the first inning, he went on a run in which he retired thirteen straight batters into the sixth inning.
“My curveball, I think I might have left it at the house,” Burnett joked after the game. “I don’t know where it was, but we were able to throw that change-up to righties and lefties, and honestly it got me through the middle of that game. Making that pitch effective and working the curve here and there.”
Overall, Burnett gave the Pirates 6.2 strong innings in which he allowed three earned runs, walked four batters and struck out nine – his highest strikeout total since coming off of the disabled list.
Unfortunately for the Burnett, however, the Pirates’ bats were unable to provide him with ample run support. Reds’ rookie left-hander Brandon Finnegan cruised through six innings, giving up only three hits and one earned run, striking out six and inducing nine groundball outs.
“We got to see him last year pitch a little bit, but today when the ball was down, it sank very well,” Clint Hurdle said. “When it was up, it had good tail. [He had] good life to his fastball, the change-up played, and the breaking ball. He commanded three pitches tonight.”
The Pirates didn’t mount any scoring threat the rest of the night, as three Reds relievers, including Aroldis Chapman, combined to pitch three scoreless innings.
Burnett’s New Weapon
Burnett’s changeup has become an extremely useful third weapon that he can turn to when he doesn’t have a feel for his curveball, which was evident in tonight’s game. He has utilized his changeup 14.6% of the time since coming off of the DL, the highest rate of his career. The offering has been extremely effective as well, as opposing hitters have not registered a single hit off of his changeup in September, according to Brooks Baseball.
“I think going forward, [I need] to get over that stubborn hump and just use that thing, man – it’s good,” Burnett said. “It gives guys a different look. They’re not expecting it and it runs like my two-seamer runs, so it’s been a big pitch.”
A Special Night
Despite taking the loss, tonight was a night that Burnett won’t soon forget.
In what was Burnett’s final regular season moment on a big-league mound, in the seventh inning, Hurdle took the ball from Burnett and he was greeted by a standing ovation from 30,000+ fans in what was a heartfelt show of appreciation for his three years of service to the Pirates and to the city of Pittsburgh.
“When I exited the game I had my mind that we were down 3-1,” Burnett said, describing his emotions as he came off of the mound. “Obviously winning the game is more important than all that. That’s where I was at and they changed that immediately. I guess some things are bigger than that. The wins are way more important I think, but the way that they reacted, how loud it was. You can ask me a million times how it was, but I couldn’t tell you.”
After embracing his teammates in the dugout, in what was a very emotional moment, Burnett returned the love to the fans, tipping his cap in gratitude after they called him back out for a curtain call.
“I’ve had some great moments in my career, I’ve played in some great cities, but it’s nothing like this. This is amazing.”
It remains to be seen if this was in fact Burnett’s final start of his career, but Francisco Cervelli insisted after the game that this will not be the last time he will be on the mound.
“You guys are talking right now like he isn’t going to pitch again,” Cervelli said with a wry smile. “That’s not going to happen. He will pitch again. We’re going to see him a couple more times.”
Fortunately for the Pirates, they still control their own destiny. A win tomorrow assures them of home-field advantage on Wednesday, and they will send out their hottest pitcher to the mound, J.A. Happ, against the Reds and rookie starter Josh Smith.
It’s a match-up that appears to greatly favor the Pirates. Their offense was able to rough-up Smith earlier in the season for four runs in three innings, while Happ pitched well against the Reds on September 9th, giving up just two earned runs in six innings while striking out a season-high ten batters.