PITTSBURGH -- When the season began four months ago, no one expected the Pirates to have the Major Leagues' top record in the first week of August, but everyone expected Clint Hurdle to be able to count on the best 1-2 combination of starters he has ever had.
That's because Hurdle said so, repeatedly calling A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez his best 1-2 punch ever.
So we're 0-for-2 in expectations. The Bucs do start the week with the Majors' best winning percentage (.604, on a record of 67-44), hard to fathom by many for several reasons, but mostly because Burnett has only five wins and Rodriguez hasn't pitched in two months.
However, Hurdle still packs his best-ever 1-2 punch. Now it consists of Burnett, hampered by poor run support, and Francisco Liriano, who strengthens his candidacy for a National League Cy Young Award every time he takes the mound.
"Yeah, we can erase that," Hurdle said of the top rank he'd awarded Burnett and Rodriguez, "and pencil Frankie in. We have two grown men who are pitching in a really good place."
The last two games, that place was PNC Park. On Saturday, Liriano pitched two-hit ball for seven innings for his 12th win. On Sunday, Burnett went the route, in one sense accomplishing what he'd set out to do. He allowed just one run and fanned nine in a complete-game effort.
"Liriano was filthy, and when you take the ball behind him, you want to repeat what he did. So that was a good follow-up," Burnett said. "As nasty as he was [Saturday] night, I wanted to come out and be just as nasty."
Hurdle's take on the same sequence: "Frankie set the bar in a good place for us, and A.J. just pushed it higher."
Liriano's 12 wins in 16 starts, are already within two of the career high he had in 2010 with the Twins, in 31 starts. His 2.02 ERA would rank second in the NL if he had enough innings to qualify, which he lacks since his start to the season was delayed until May 11 by a right arm fracture. Liriano could be two starts from qualifying, which is based on one inning pitched per each team game.
As for Burnett, much has been said about the effect of weak offensive support on his 5-7 record. But this should be the last word on that argument: Max Scherzer, the Detroit right-hander with the 16-1 record, has an ERA of 2.85; Burnett's is 2.73.
The NL Central-leading rotation only begins with Burnett and Liriano, obviously. Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton and rookie Gerrit Cole all have a big arm in the rotation's MLB-leading 3.18 ERA.
"That's how all our starters are: We want to one-up the guy before us," Burnett said. "Funnest staff I've ever been a part of."
Tabata, Presley may be Bucs' answer in right
PITTSBURGH -- Fans were holding their breaths as the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approached, anxious for the Pirates to fill their only perceived hole, offense from the right-field position.
General manager Neal Huntington apparently shared that anxiety, judging by the widely-circulated comment that he was "willing to do something stupid, but not insane."
So guess what was happening while Huntington was "striking out" on the trade front? The Pirates kept winning. Their 6-2 record last week featured four wins over the Cardinals and was impacted by the two players that a deal could have displaced, Alex Presley and Jose Tabata. Between them, they hit .306, scoring six runs and driving in three.
They must have been what both Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle were referring to as something "in our back pocket " as the Trade Deadline clock was ticking.
"We were never, ever in a trouble situation," Hurdle said. "We talked the entire week about getting the other guys sparking. It might just be that Presley and Tabata find their way out there."
"It's great to see those guys have some big hits and make some key plays for us," Huntington said. "It's what we're going to need. It's part of the belief we had in this club, why we didn't want to do something desperate. They've shown signs of being the answer as we move forward, but they haven't done it on a consistent enough basis -- so let's see how consistent they can be."
Since the emphasis had been on getting a right-handed power bat, Tabata could be a bigger part of that answer. He provided a bright flash of that potential Saturday night, with a home run to right field and a triple into the faraway North Side Notch. Tabata also got Hurdle's attention with his forceful sprint home and slide on Josh Harrison's squeeze bunt.
"He threw up a game we were all hoping to see," Hurdle said. "That slide at home was the kind of play that gets you up out of your seat a little bit."
• For the second consecutive year, Andrew McCutchen has received the Pirates Heart and Hustle Award from the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association. A player on each of the 30 MLB clubs is honored by the MLBPAA for his charitable efforts.
• The Pirates have allowed two runs or fewer in 50 of their 111 games, which, while sounding impressive, lacks some relevance without comparisons to other teams' performance in that department.
The Bucs' 50 is the best in the Majors, with the Cardinals next at 46. The other 13 NL clubs have an average of 37 such games. American League clubs come in with considerably lower numbers, not surprising given the impact of designated hitters.
First number, last word
.313: Tabata's lifetime average in the month of August, the most productive month for the career .271 hitter.
"They've been awesome. They've been packing this place. They know what kind of team we have and what's at stake. The 'A.J.' chants while I'm on the mound ... they give you goosebumps." --Burnett, taking to PNC Park fans as much as they have taken to him
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.