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WSH@PIT: McCutchen drives a long solo homer in first

PITTSBURGH -- A.J. Burnett had a pretty good night Friday. He pitched, he won, afterward he even capsulized the Pirates' 3-1 victory over the Nationals.

Take it away, Burnett:

"I was just trying to get in and out, try to keep them off base," the right-hander said in response to a general question following his seven-inning outing. "Then Jordy came up and had a great night -- welcome back, Jordy -- and the Shark Tank did their thing, and it was a great win altogether."

That's Jordy Mercer, featured in the Pirates' ongoing campaign to raise the mark of any good baseball club -- another day, another hero -- to ridiculous heights.

In his third hour with the team, having been formally recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis shortly before the game when Neil Walker was placed on the disabled list, and on his third at-bat, he hit a two-run homer to snap a 1-1 tie in the fifth.

The Shark Tank is the Pirates' self-named bullpen, from which Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli emerged for their usual eighth-ninth inning finishing frenzy.

There was more to the Bucs' 16th win in their last 23 games, of course.

Andrew McCutchen began the scoring with a solo homer in the first and went 3-for-3 against his favorite kind of pitcher, a left-hander, in this instance, Ross Detwiler.

Starling Marte had two hits and two stolen bases, including one of each in front of Mercer's homer.

Burnett spent seven innings disrupting hitters' timing, allowing five hits and a run while adding nine to his National League-leading strikeout total, now at 57.

The difference-maker, however, was Mercer, who at about the same time slipped into the clubhouse and into the lineup -- in the key two-hole, because he had departed Indianapolis with a hot .333 average.

"I hit him there because he's been hot," manager Clint Hurdle said. "I'm a big fan of getting guys right in there when we get them up here."

Mercer took mental notes on Detwiler the first two futile times he faced him.

"I was just getting ready," Mercer said. "He was pounding the fastball, with good velocity."

His third time up, Mercer got the advantage of a 2-and-0 count.

"I told myself to get ready, and let's see what happens," Mercer said. "I got myself in a good count and let it fly."

It flew all the way into the left-field bleachers. Detwiler was dazed, recognizing the pitch identical to the one McCutchen had hit out.

"It was kind of weird. It was the same exact pitch," Detwiler said. "I was trying to throw a fastball away. I cut it a little bit. It goes right over the middle of the plate. They are paid to hit them."

And Burnett had a lead he treasured.

Burnett allowed five hits and the run in his seven innings, with one walk next to the nine whiffs. When not striking out Nationals, he was dispatching them quickly, registering eight outs on three pitches or fewer.

"That's what got him through seven. It was just what we were looking for from him," Hurdle said.

"That's what it's about: Getting to the eighth- and ninth-inning guys," Burnett said. "This was a day I felt good out of the gate. I would've been surprised if I didn't go deep. That's huge for starters, it saves those guys down there [in the bullpen]."

The last guy down there is the Majors' Delivery Man of April, not a bad feather in the cap of first-time closer Grilli. He remained perfect in 12 save opportunities; that's more than the victory totals of six teams.

"That's one month. We've got five months to go," Grilli said. "[We've got to] keep looking ahead."

When it comes to leveling cities, McCutchen has been as thorough on Washington as Sherman was on Atlanta.

McCutchen brought a lifetime average against the Nationals of .442 into the game, and considerably improved on it by going 3-for-4 overall. He has also hit in 16 straight games against the Nats, with those numbers now at a Nintendo-esque 31-for-60 (.517), including seven homers and 13 RBIs.

Burnett got into trouble in the fourth inning, as the Nats drew into a 1-1 tie: With two outs, he walked Adam LaRoche (batting .146) and gave up consecutive singles to Tyler Moore (.179) and Danny Espinosa (.173).

Thereafter, he silenced the Nationals on one more hit.

The early cheers for McCutchen's homer and Burnett's effectiveness were not the loudest, to be sure, heard in the ballpark. This, after all, is Pittsburgh and the Penguins were playing concurrent playoff hockey. Updates on their game with the Islanders elicited the crowd's roars.

However, Pirates updates inside the Penguins' Consol Energy Center most assuredly also drew cheers. There's plenty of room in this proverbial Title Town for the Bucs to reclaim their swagger.

It would appear they have already begun that: The competition from the televised hockey game notwithstanding, the Bucs were welcomed home from a 6-4 road trip by a crowd of 26,404 -- second-largest since the season-opening series against the Cubs.

"Yeah, that's special," Hurdle acknowledged. "I was looking around the stands and going, 'Wow.'"

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