PITTSBURGH -- In the Pirates' most recent run to ultimate glory, the 1979 club famously was given Stargell Stars for good deeds. Perhaps members of the 2012 pitchers battalion -- using Memorial Weekend talk -- should start collecting Purple Hearts.They spend every game under duress, shaking off the wounds of lack of runs in attempts to bring home the prize. Often they deliver, as did A.J. Burnett on Friday night, when he got the least and made of it the most. The Bucs scored a second-inning run off Ryan Dempster, the Cubs right-hander on his own little island when it comes to tough losses, and Burnett and four relievers took it home for a 1-0 win over Chicago. "Experience and moxie got [Burnett] through. He was exceptional to not give up a run, as much trouble as he was in," manager Clint Hurdle said after the Pirates' 21st one-run game out of 45. "Man, that's a lot. But I don't stress. That's men out there playing the game." Burnett emptied his tank of 105 pitches in 5 1/3 innings, during which he blanked Chicago on six hits, with two walks and six strikeouts. This was Burnett's shortest "good" outing of the season. Sure, he lasted only 2 2/3 innings on May 2 in St. Louis, but then he was in the process of doling out 12 runs. "They fouled off a lot of balls early, battled me. Took a lot out of me. You'd like to go deeper, that's our goal," Burnett said. "But it's not so bad when guys come in after you and do what they did. That 'pen ... They came in earlier than they should, and they nailed it down." First, rookie Jared Hughes quelled the jam Burnett left behind. At the end, Juan Cruz and Joel Hanrahan (securing his 11th save) bulldozed their way through eighth- and ninth-inning trouble to finish up your basic 10-hit shutout. In between, Jason Grilli raised his crazy season to lunatic levels. He struck out the side, again, in the seventh, raising three points: Grilli maintained his streak of at least one strikeout in each of his 19 appearances of the season, improving his club-record season-opening stretch and tying the team's overall mark of most consecutive relief appearances with a strikeout, set in 2010 by Octavio Dotel. It was the second consecutive time Grilli had fanned the side, and it gave him an overall streak of seven straight strikeouts to take into his next outing. It improved his season numbers to 33 strikeouts in 18 innings, meaning he has fanned someone for 61 percent of the total outs he has recorded. Grilli's six strikeouts in two innings have followed his return from the bereavement list after he attended services for his wife's grandfather. Earlier this month, Hanrahan returned from time on the bereavement list with similarly strong results. "Maybe we should get our relievers in rotation out of here for three days -- obviously not on bereavement -- and give them some time down and have 'em come back," Hurdle said in jest. Of course, Hurdle knows that absence is not a requisite for excellence. His relievers simply reinforced their standing as the National League's top bullpen with Friday night's effort. None of the Pirates pitchers had the nerve to complain about a lack of run support in the presence of Dempster, whose neglect is historic, as he went into this game with an ERA of 2.28 -- and no wins in seven starts. No one has been as tortured in 46 years, since Whitey Ford went 0-3 with a 2.03 ERA in his first seven starts of 1966. By the time his 7 1/3-inning performance and the game had ended, Dempster had broken new frontiers of angst, his ERA dropping to 2.14 and his record to 0-3. Matt Hague, inserted into the lineup upon his recall from Triple-A Indianapolis, immediately made his presence felt, serving as an accessory to the Pirates' rally. His comebacker with one out in the second, briefly dropped by Dempster, advanced Pedro Alvarez to second, from which he scored on Rod Barajas' single for a one-run lead and the eventual final score. "It's a tough loss," Dempster said. "I felt if I would have fielded a ground ball and turned a double play [in the second], we'd still be playing now. I field my position and turn two, and they don't score, it's a different ballgame." It wasn't that simple, of course. Right-fielder David DeJesus, having charged Barajas' hit, made an accurate throw to catcher Koyie Hill, whose attempt at a swipe tag found air as Alvarez smartly dove under it, sweeping his left hand across the plate. "Excellent slide -- the new school, where you slide by and tap it on your way," Hurdle said. "Pedro also made a nice cut around third; he ran as fast as he can, as efficiently as possible around third to get home." "With two outs I was just trying to get a good jump and running hard to score," said Alvarez, who had reached base by singling. "[Clint] Barmes was behind the plate telling me to get down and I saw the ball come in, so I tried to slide outside of home plate." Burnett came right back to hang a third-inning zero on the Cubs, despite having to deal with Darwin Barney getting to second with one out.
If there is one thing being backed by a modest offense will teach pitchers, it is the importance of treasuring the occasional score. Shutdown innings rule: That was the ninth inning in which the Bucs had scored for Burnett, and the seventh time he responded with a goose egg.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.