CINCINNATI -- A.J. Burnett had spent the first two games of the series watching and stewing. He saw Cincinnati batters take aggressive swings, leaving dents in Great American Ball Park's wall all over the place.On Sunday, Clint Hurdle could finally take off his leash and essentially tell him, "Go get 'em." "He's looking forward to taking the mound," the manager of the Pirates understated shortly prior to the finale of an eventful three-game series. The way a rooster looks forward to daybreak? "We come into their house, they get us twice -- we needed to come out of here with a win," Burnett said after having made sure of making that happen. Pittsburgh's pitching sage and ace hurled three-hit ball for 8 2/3 innings, and Starling Marte broke a tie with a two-out, two-run triple in the fourth as the Bucs defeated the Reds, 6-2, under threatening clouds. Salvaging the series finale following 3-0 and 5-4 losses to complete a 6-4 road trip returned the Pirates within 4 1/2 games of Cincinnati's NL Central lead. The Bucs were also three ahead of St. Louis for an NL Wild Card spot, with the Cards playing Sunday night. Darned if Burnett didn't tender a worthy encore to his one-hitter in Chicago on Tuesday. Maybe even better: Against the Cubs, he never had stretches of 18 straight outs, and 24 of 25. He had those on Sunday, until consecutive walks with two outs in the ninth-inning downpour cost him the chance to become the first Pirates pitcher to hurl consecutive complete games since left-hander Mark Redman on May 9-14, 2005 (and one of those was an eight-inning losing effort on the road). "I've pitched in worse," Burnett said of the conditions. "With two outs, it just started raining more, and I tried to get through it quick. I was upset; I wanted to finish." "He walked two guys. That's enough for me. I've got to manage," said Hurdle, who brought in Joel Hanrahan for the one-out save, and afterward could only admiringly shake his head over Burnett's effort -- this day and this season. "After the second inning, he was rock solid. Quick outs. Quick innings," Hurdle said. "When you look at his volume of work, it speaks for itself. There are a number of areas you can go to and crush the numbers to show what this man has been able to get accomplished since he's been here." Or, you can skip the crushing and just consider the big numbers: 14 wins, a career second-best already to the 18 with the 2008 Blue Jays; 8-0 in starts following a Pirates loss -- including 4-0 when following consecutive defeats. "Whatever it takes, man. I just want to win," Burnett said, peeling off the "stopper" label. "Anybody else could've done the same. If it's my day, fine. But all of our starters take responsibility the way they should. It just happens to fall on me sometimes." When it's on Burnett, the Pirates seldom fall. In his 20 starts -- remember, the first did not happen until April 21, thanks to that eye-orbital fracture from a bunt -- the club now is 17-3. That makes the Pirates one game over .500 in everyone else's starts. Marte came through to collect Gaby Sanchez, who had led off the fourth with a single -- his first hit in six at-bats as a Pirate -- and Clint Barmes, who had lined his second opposite-field single. Burnett's sacrifice fly advanced Barmes to second while Sanchez held third, and both walked home as Marte's opposite-field drive on Homer Bailey's 1-2 pitch missed clearing the yellow homer line by inches for his first career triple. "Marte gave us a big swing of the bat, really timely when we needed one," said Hurdle, dismayed that the Pirates had wasted most of their 15 hits, stranding 12 runners. "We left a small village on base," Hurdle said with a chuckle. "I was telling them in the dugout, 'Be stubborn, keep getting on base and we'll find a way to score some sooner or later.'" In the series' 20th inning, the Pirates finally had their first lead when Neil Walker followed Garrett Jones' second-inning single with his 12th homer -- hitting the mark at which he had finished each of his first two big league seasons. Drew Stubbs erased that 2-1 lead with a solo homer, his 14th, with two outs in the third. The next time he had a lead, Burnett kept it. It was a big game, and Burnett wanted it. That became emphatically clear when he ended the first inning by throwing a called third strike to Todd Frazier. Hurdle tends to call attention to Burnett's professionalism by pointing out one cannot tell by his mound body language how he is faring. Getting bombed, mowing 'em down ... his composure doesn't change. But when that third strike sailed by Frazier, Burnett pumped his right fist while doing a little pivot. The exuberance might have been fueled in part by having escaped greater damage: Jay Bruce's one-out double had given the Reds a 1-0 lead, then Ryan Ludwick's bloop single to right had given them men at the corners. But when Burnett caught Ludwick breaking prematurely for second -- officially a caught stealing ending 23 consecutive steals with Burnett on the mound -- and followed up with the strikeout of Frazier, calm was restored. And Burnett made sure it was kept. He got a final boost from a pair of ninth-inning insurance runs, one on Andrew McCutchen's first home run since July 17 for his first RBI since July 22. "It's been a while. I haven't been feeling great," McCutchen said. "It was good to be able to get a win here, and go home feeling good." McCutchen concurred with what had been one of the running themes of the series between contenders played in front of sellout crowds: The atmosphere was a terrific experience for the young Pirates. "Definitely," McCutchen said. "I've never been in a playoff, but I'm sure it kinda feels like that." Across the room, Burnett smirked and shook his head. "I've been in October. This was nothing like October," said the man who plans to show the Pirates what that feels like.
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.