PITTSBURGH -- James McDonald was still engulfed by media late Thursday evening when a reporter peeled away from the scrum. As the reporter began to walk off, he passed A.J. Burnett ambling the other way.

As he passed Burnett and without stopping, the reporter pointed a backward thumb toward McDonald and said under his breath, "Nice job."

Without stopping, Burnett said, "Yeah, it's getting there."

One of Burnett's key contributions to the Pirates can be seen every fifth day -- when McDonald takes the mound. The veteran's influence on his younger counterpart has been well documented, and extreme. The most recent evidence of this was McDonald's complete-game win over Minnesota on Thursday, the first complete game of his career.

Of course, Burnett has done pretty well on his days to pitch, too. He started Friday night's series opener against the Tigers with a 7-2 record and 3.52 ERA, the kind of performance that has lent weight to his words of advice.

Everyone in the clubhouse recognizes the positive impact that both Burnett and veteran catcher Rod Barajas have had on McDonald, who has made 14 starts and not allowed more than three runs in any of them, the first Pittsburgh pitcher to do that since the 19th century. He is also averaging 6 1/2 innings per start, a full inning more than a year ago.

While discussing McDonald's improvement in the immediate aftermath of Thursday's gem, Andrew McCutchen was quick to note that "having A.J. by his side has definitely helped him."

And Burnett's impact has trickled down through McDonald to the rest of the pitching staff. Not everyone may have been as dramatically affected but, said manager Clint Hurdle, "they're all sure of themselves. There's a lot of self-confidence going on. I really like the pace, the rhythm."

Pirates' starters could be in version of 'Survivor'

PITTSBURGH -- Jeff Karstens went through an uneventful bullpen session on Thursday and is poised to make what is anticipated to be his final rehab start on Sunday in Indianapolis.

That means Brad Lincoln and Kevin Correia could be participating in their own version of "Survivor" when they take the mound in the final two games of the series against Detroit. Whoever has the lesser performance could be voted out of the rotation.

The Bucs have set their pitching plans through next week's four-game series in Philadelphia, but the starter for Thursday, when Lincoln's spot would next come up, is "to be announced." Correia's next turn would be on Friday in St. Louis, but plans for that series aren't yet indicated.

"We're thinking things through, weighing all the options of how we might be best served going forward," manager Clint Hurdle said. "A lot of things are in play for that [Thursday] slot. Jeff could very well figure in that slot.

"We're having internal meetings to decide what we want to do with the rotation. We'll see how it plays out. I'm looking forward to seeing Brad pitch [on Saturday], then seeing what Correia is able to bring Sunday."

Karstens made 78 pitches in a very sharp seven-inning rehab outing on Tuesday in Double-A Altoona. He does not figure to have any pitch limitations, or pitch targets for that matter, when he goes to the hill for the Triple-A Indians on Sunday.

The 29-year-old right-hander, generally recognized as the Pirates' strongest starter in the second half of the 2011 season, went on the disabled list in mid-April with inflammation in his shoulder. He was dealt a minor setback earlier this month when he tweaked his hip flexor.

Final word

"We've got to get the word, and the vote, out for Cutch. I'm voting 25 times a day. So is my wife. And I'm not stopping any time soon." -- Reliever Jared Hughes, proud to have Andrew McCutchen's back in voting for the 2012 All-Star Game

Worth noting

• Pirates management received considerable criticism a month ago when Drew Sutton, who was flipped to the Rays hours after being acquired from the Braves, went on an immediate tear with Tampa Bay, going 6-for-11 in his first three games. So it should be noted that Sutton went 7-for-37 since and has been designated for assignment.

• When A.J. Burnett came off the disabled list, Charlie Morton was slotted between him and James McDonald in the rotation. Since Morton underwent Tommy John surgery and the rotation was adjusted, McDonald and Burnett have worked back-to-back, and the Bucs are 7-1 in those games.

• The Pirates are 6-2 in front of home crowds of 30,000-plus (and 34-17 since the start of the 2009 season), an MLB-best 15-4 at home since May 12 and 10-2 in home Interleague games the last two seasons.

• Casey McGehee's 0-for-4 performance on Friday ended his hitting streak at nine games, two shy of his career-long streak, accomplished in each of the last two seasons.

• Pedro Alvarez kept fanning ... his fire, for a change, going 1-for-2 to leave him 10-for-19 in his last six games. With a man on second and two outs in the second, he was walked intentionally by Doug Fister -- his first such pass of the season and only the third of his career.