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August 1, 2012

What You Need to Know

Wednesday, August 1

by Daniel Rathman

The Tuesday Takeaway
From the wee hours of the morning through the 4:00 p.m. ET deadline, general managers took center stage. The Phillies split their outfielders between the National League West rivals, sending Shane Victorino to Los Angeles and Hunter Pence to San Francisco. The Cubs finally found a taker for Ryan Dempster, shipping him to pitching-starved Texas. And the Reds landed Jonathan Broxton, adding another power arm to the senior circuit’s most talented bullpen.

But as the dust settled and the sun set, A.J. Burnett grabbed the spotlight at Wrigley Field. Acquired from the Yankees in a salary-dump trade in February, the 35-year-old right-hander has gone from unpredictable in New York to unbeatable in Pittsburgh. After allowing four or more runs in 15 of his 32 starts last season, Burnett has held his opponents to three or fewer in 16 of his 19 outings in 2012, including last night’s 5-0 victory over the Cubs.

Burnett entered the second game of the three-game set having pitched at least seven innings in each of his three previous starts, his longest such streak since Aug. 10-20, 2010. And instead of simply pitching into the eighth inning on Tuesday, he did so without allowing a hit. 

The Pirates handed Burnett a four-run lead on Neil Walker’s first-inning grand slam, and until Adrian Cardenas singled with two out in the eighth, the veteran barely broke a sweat. Four outs—including two strikeouts—later, Burnett had earned his first complete-game shutout since June 27, 2006, and his first nine-inning effort with fewer than two hits allowed since his no-hitter on May 12, 2001.

Wednesday’s blanking at Wrigley marked the fourth time this season that Burnett has been charged with fewer than four hits and his seventh consecutive start with two or fewer walks. His ERA fell from 3.52 to 3.27, the lowest it has been since June 22. And if you were willing to forgive Burnett’s 2 2/3-inning, 12-run disaster in St. Louis on May 2, his 2.44 ERA would rank fifth in the league.

With their win last night, the Pirates improved to 59-44, kept pace with the first-place Reds, and drew one victory closer to their first winning season since 1992. They are 16-3 with Burnett on the mound and 43-41 behind everyone else.

Call it a product of returning to the senior circuit, of moving from the pressure cooker of New York to the relative calm of western Pennsylvania, or simply of honing his craft. Whatever factors have spurred Burnett’s resurgence are making general manager Neal Huntington look like a genius.

Now in his fifth season at the helm, Huntington was a buyer in the hours leading up to Tuesday’s deadline, a year after acquiring Ryan Ludwick from the Padres, only to watch his team fade during the ensuing weeks. Wandy Rodriguez, Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez, and Chad Qualls represented Huntington’s 2012 deadline haul, and amid all the wheeling and dealing, the team’s well-stocked pipeline remained intact.   

The mid-July rumor mill had Justin Upton or Carlos Quentin heading to Pittsburgh, but instead of razing his farm system, Huntington focused on buy-low opportunities that could improve his current roster without mortgaging the future. Under-the-radar additions like Burnett have enabled the Pirates to return to their winning ways. And if Huntington strikes gold with either Snider or Sanchez, their pennant window—sealed shut since Barry Bonds left town two decades ago—may inch open again. 

What to Watch for on Wednesday

  • So far, so… unexpectedly outstanding for Ben Sheets and the Braves, who have enjoyed 18 innings of one-run ball in his first three starts. The 34-year-old’s next assignment comes tonight against the Marlins, though Miami’s roster looks considerably different from the one Sheets faced while with the Brewers four years ago. Sheets’ former teammate, Carlos Lee, is the only Marlin with significant experience against him, and Lee has fared well, going 7-for-19 with four doubles and a home run. Ozzie Guillen will counter with Wade LeBlanc, who has usurped Carlos Zambrano’s spot in the rotation by compiling a 1.15 ERA in 15 2/3 innings of relief work (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • The Reds have won 11 of their last 12, and Drew Stubbs, who has gone 12-for-32 with two doubles, four homers, and four stolen bases over his last seven games, has been the driving force behind their surge. Manager Dusty Baker held his 27-year-old center fielder out of the lineup on Tuesday, allowing Stubbs to catch his breath after raising his OPS 60 points (from 644 to 704) in only a week. He will try to pick up where he left off in tonight’s matchup with Kip Wells, who has—perhaps by some sort of divine intervention—managed to log a 2.00 ERA in his three starts away from Petco Park this season (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • Yu Darvish has fanned at least 10 batters in four of his last seven trips to the mound, but his most recent outing, a 6 1/3 inning, six-run (five earned) effort against the White Sox, resulted in his third loss in four starts. The Rangers will look for their first-year import to lead the way as they try to turn their four-game set with the Angels around (8:05 p.m. ET).
  • Swingman Carlos Villanueva has found his calling in the Blue Jays rotation, going undefeated since manager John Farrell moved him over from the bullpen on June 29. The 28-year-old righty logged a 3.24 ERA in relief, and he has pared his overall mark down to 2.92 by posting a 2.54 ERA as a starter. Villanueva has won each of his last four starts—beating three American League contenders in the Indians, Red Sox, and Tigers—and he’ll look to extend that run to five in tonight’s battle with the Mariners (10:10 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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