McCutchen homers twice as Pirates cruise

McCutchen homers twice as Pirates cruise

McCutchen homers twice as Pirates cruise
PITTSBURGH -- Their payroll will never be confused with a pirate's treasure chest. On any given day, their entire starting lineup would lose out on a financial see-saw to Joey Votto.

But as baseball takes an All-Star Game timeout, the Pittsburgh Pirates are laughing all the way to the bank of the Allegheny.

Laughing, but not giggling.

"If you expect to win and then you win -- why would you get all giggly about it?" manager Clint Hurdle pointed out.

A.J. Burnett and the Bucs met their expectations once more Sunday, dusting off the Giants, 13-2, behind five hits by Neil Walker and three by Andrew McCutchen, who warmed up for his State Farm Home Run Derby date with a pair of two-run homers.

"I can't see a better way of going into the All-Star break than with a 6-1 homestand," Walker said after the Pirates had run their record in the last 13 series to a remarkable 11-1-1.

A perfect way to ride off into the first-half sunset? Not to Hurdle, who had to go out of his way to find something wrong -- and found it in the Melky Cabrera first-inning blooper that fell near the left-field line between shortstop Clint Barmes and left fielder Drew Sutton.

"We fired on all fronts -- with the exception of the ball not handled in short left field," said Hurdle, and no one could make out whether he was serious or trying to be funny, given the high notes struck the rest of the afternoon.

The Pirates won the 12th consecutive start by Burnett (10-2) to conclude a remarkable half-season of baseball resurrection with their 48th win and sole possession of first place in the National League Central.

And if you think "resurrection" refers to the past 19 years of losing, think again: It refers to April and May, months spent chasing a .220 team batting average and running away from harsh critics.

Now? Walker's career-best-tying five hits (also on July 20, 2010) and McCutchen's Nos. 17 and 18 led the destruction of one of the NL West powers that, ironically, had ganged up on the Pirates in those bleak early days of April.

"We worked hard to get to where we are," Hurdle said. "We've got 11 in the bank, but we'll start off zero-zero in the second half and go to work. We'll knock them down one game at a time."

Before leaving to the thunderous ovation from fans, Burnett pitched 6 1/3 innings, allowing four hits -- including Pablo Sandoval's two-run homer in the seventh -- and two walks while striking out five.

Halfway on his walk from mound to dugout, Burnett waved to the crowd to acknowledge the cheers.

"I was so mad about the homer ... then I instantly forgot about it," he said with a smile. "They've accepted me from the get-go, and the way they've been coming out and supporting us has a lot to do with how we play."

This is how they play: The Bucs' 29-14 record in PNC Park is the best home record in the Majors.

McCutchen began validating his invitation to Monday night's Home Run Derby by following Walker's first-inning double with his 17th blow of the season, getting Tim Lincecum's day off to a sour start.

"I left that changeup up and he put a good swing on it," Lincecum said. "Obviously he's hot right now and a tough out, so when you give a mistake to a guy like that, he's going to punish it, and he did."

Not to be trumped, Walker came up with his own long ball two innings later, giving the Bucs a 3-0 lead with his sixth.

The next inning, it became even more obvious that the Pirates had caught an on-and-off former two-time Cy Young Award winner on his "off" switch. Burnett had the pleasure of personally chasing Lincecum from the mound with a ringing bases-loaded single up the middle to make it 4-0 then, against righty reliever Clay Hensley, Sutton's sacrifice fly and Walker's RBI single signalled the rout.

Then it was time for a team that had spent most of the first 3 1/2 months in the pressure cooker -- 47 games decided by one run or two -- to have some fun. Barmes singled for a run in the fifth. Casey McGehee singled for two runs in the sixth. McCutchen followed Walker's fifth hit, off George Kontos in the seventh, with No. 18.

The quintet blew Walker's average up to .291 -- the highest it has been since he was batting .293 on May 1.

"I feel good at the plate, and I'm happy about that. July is usually a good month for me; when the weather gets hot I usually start to feel a lot better," Walker said. "So I feel good -- but I'm more happy with how we're playing as a team."

It's funny only until someone gets hurt, of course. McGehee pulled up lame on his sixth-inning drive to the left-center corner and had to leave the game with a slightly strained left groin. With overall roster health having been one of their blessings this season, the Pirates were left hoping the injury to McGehee was only minor.

Tom Singer is a reporter for 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.