A.J. Burnett, in his final start of the regular season at PNC Park and what may have been the final start of his career, struggled through a 31-pitch first inning before settling into a groove and striking out nine Reds over 6.2 innings. Unfortunately for Burnett and the Pirates, the two runs that the Reds scored on three hits in the first inning provided a sufficient margin of victory for the Reds to win their first game in 14 tries. Brandon Finnegan and three Reds relievers held the Pirates to four hits and two walks while recording 10 strikeouts.
After Jason Bourgeois led off the first with a hard-hit fly out to right field, Eugenio Suarez singled and moved to third on an errant pickoff throw by Burnett that Michael Morse couldn't handle at first. Suarez scored on a ground out to second by Joey Votto. Brandon Phillips singled and stole second without a throw, and then Todd Frazier, who had gone 0 for 6 in yesterday's game, hit a double that drove in Phillips. After a walk to Jay Bruce, Burnett retired Adam Duvall for the final out.
The two-run lead seemed insignificant when Josh Harrison led off the bottom of the first with a triple off Finnegan and scored on Gregory Polanco's ground out to second. But Finnegan struck out Andrew McCutchen and Michael Morse looking around a walk to Aramis Ramirez and an infield single to Starling Marte, and Burnett entered the second trailing 2-1. He gave up a leadoff single to Tucker Barnhart, but after that, he retired 13 Reds in a row before walking Phillips in the sixth and then erasing him and Frazier on a double play.
Meanwhile Finnegan, a first-round draft pick of the Kansas City Royals acquired by the Reds in the Johnny Cueto trade-deadline deal, dispatched the Pirates easily over the next five innings with an effective offspeed pitch and good control of his low-90s fastball. He struck out six and walked two over six innings and gave up only the one run in the first and three hits.
After getting one out in the top of the seventh, Burnett gave up a long home run to Duvall. He then walked Barnhart, struck out pinch-hitter Skip Schumaker, batting for Finnegan, and fell behind Bourgeois 3-1. Bourgeois fouled off the next pitch, and the crowd rose to their feet trying to coax a last strike out of Burnett. But when his pitch missed high, Clint Hurdle came out of the dugout and called Jared Hughes in from the bullpen. Burnett walked slowly off the mound to a thunderous ovation and two dugout curtain calls.
With Finnegan out of the game, the Pirates had two innings against the Reds' erratic middle relievers to reward Burnett's valor and get back in the game, which they now trailed 3-1, before Chapman time. But the Pirates were unable to do anything against Burke Badenhop in the seventh: Morse struck out looking again, Cervelli flew out to center, and Jordy Mercer struck out swinging.
Michael Lorenzen got the first two outs for the Reds in the eighth, retiring pinch-hitter Neil Walker on a grounder to Votto at first and Harrison on a fly out to center, but then he gave up a single to Polanco. Needing a win badly after 13 straight losses and unwilling to let this one get away, Bryan Price brought in Aroldis Chapman to face McCutchen in the eighth and go for the four-out save. After teasing McCutchen with a couple of off-speed pitches, Chapman blew him away with the heat. In the ninth, he retired Ramirez, hit Marte with a pitch, got Morse to strike out for the third time in the evening, and then retired Cervelli on a deep fly to center.
After tonight's loss, and with the Cubs beating the Brewers in excruciating fashion 1-0 in Milwaukee, it comes to this: in their 162nd game tomorrow, the Pirates have one more chance to secure home-field advantage in next Wednesday's wild card game.
Fireworks after a loss always seem incongruous but tonight they seemed peculiarly apt, echoing through the Golden Triangle in mock contrast to the quiet Pirates bats inside the stadium on this cold October night.