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AJ Burnett: The Night a Pitch Separated Excellence from History

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Cincinnati Reds v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates finished the season 79-83, slipping to fourth place in the National League Central after peaking at first place on July 18 when the club was 51-40. Marred by a second half collapse in which the team went 31-46, including a 7-21 stretch in September, the Pirates lost their bid at ending the organization’s long-standing losing streak.

But on a July 31 night in Chicago, while hopes were high and the Bucs were only three games back of the number one spot in the division, AJ Burnett took the ball to face an embattled Cubs squad who was destined to finish fifth in the Central and lose 101 games.

For around two-and-a-half hours that night, it appeared as though Batman, which Burnett came to be known by, was on track to make history by twirling a no-hitter — something that hadn’t happened in a Pirates’ uniform since the combined Francisco Cordova/Ricardo Rincon effort in 1997.

In the bottom of the first inning, Burnett made quick work of the Cubs top-of-the-order, sending the first three batters back to the bench on a flyball, groundout, and strikeout swinging. The bottom of the second didn’t put the veteran righty under much stress, either, with the 4-5-6 hitters going 1-2-3 on a pair of groundouts and a strikeout.

The bottom of the third saw more of the same: Two groundouts and a strikeout. It wasn’t until the fourth inning until the Cubs got their first man on base when Anthony Rizzo drew a walk after working the count full. Burnett then struck out Alfonso Soriano to conclude the inning.

The bottom of the fifth concluded after a flyball, strikeout, and groundout. By this point, any thoughts of a no-hitter began to enter the fan’s consciousness. If Burnett were to accomplish such a feat, it would be a meta achievement of sorts: A historical performance buried within an overall potentially historical season. The further we progressed, the more it seemed likely that the Pirates were destined to snap their losing streak, and what better memory to have than a no-hitter (except, of course, for a World Series).

A David DeJesus walk was all Chicago mustered in the sixth, save for a steal, and hopes of history remained alive on the Wrigley Field pitcher’s mound. When Burnett got through the seventh 1-2-3, the reality was beginning to set in: This could really happen. While no-hitters are a fun event to follow, it isn’t until the eighth and ninth innings that it begins to really look achievable.

Burnett had thrown a no-hitter before, coming all the way back in 2001 when he was a member of the Florida Marlins. He was 24 years old at the time and managed to work his way through a San Diego Padres lineup which included Rickey Henderson, Mark Kotsay, and Ryan Klesko, despite control problems. Burnett faced 36 batters in that game and threw for a strike only 50.4 percent of the time. His performance on July 31, 2012, was much more remarkable and much more deserving of history.

By the bottom of the eighth inning, the Pirates were in control of the lead at 5-0, meaning Burnett was free to charge towards the finish line. That inning began with a Steve Clevenger groundout. Only five to go. But the next batter, Darwin Barney, was hit by the first pitch of the plate appearance. Jeff Baker pinch ran for Barney and managed to swipe second, the Cubs second stolen bag of the game. Luis Valbuena, however, struck out on a 2-2 pitch back at home plate. Only four more outs to go.

The next batter was Adrian Cardenas, whose major league career began and ended in 2012, when he appeared in 45 games for the Cubs, leaving with a .183 batting average. But one of his 11 hits carries more weight than any of his others, because one of them came against a dealing Burnett with two outs in the eighth inning of a no-hitter. It was a single into right field which moved Baker to third base. With runners on the corners, Burnett struck out DeJesus on three pitches to end the frame.

Burnett returned to the mound in the ninth inning to finish off his masterpiece. He induced two lineouts before striking out Soriano on three pitches to end the game — his eighth strikeout of the night. The Pirates won easily that night, thanks in large part to Burnett’s outing, but also to a first inning Neil Walker grand slam.

And so, it was that one pitch to Cardenas — virtually a cup of coffee player — which shifted Burnett’s performance from historical to simply excellent. To date, it’s still one of the best starting pitching performances I’ve seen from a Pirates’ pitcher. While there have been some good ones to choose from since then, Burnett’s was one that still sticks around in my memory, perhaps because it was so close to being written in the books as a no-hitter instead of an ordinary win. Nevertheless, we’ll likely all remember the night the 35-year-old Burnett flirted with placing a goose egg in the Cubs’ hit column.