On the surface it was a nice gesture: a lively baseball crowd showing its appreciation with a standing ovation.
The only oddity? The cheers were showered upon a guy who had just delivered a below-average performance in an important situation.
I’m clearly not referring to the 25,000 fans at Thursday’s Pirates game summoning Garrett Jones out of the dugout for a curtain call. That was certainly deserved after the outfielder delivered his second three-run homer of the afternoon, almost singlehandedly delivering a 10-6 win and preventing a four-game sweep by Los Angeles.
No, the rampant applause that seemed out of place occurred about 45 minutes after Jones’ moment in the sun. Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett had just hit the Dodgers’ Juan Rivera with the bases loaded in the top of the seventh. The unfortunate plunking forced in a run, the sixth that Burnett had allowed on the day.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle took that miscue as an opportunity to bring in lefthanded reliever Tony Watson to face Los Angeles cleanup hitter Andre Ethier with the score now 8-6 Pittsburgh. On a day when Burnett was gifted a three-run lead in the first, blew it, and then received a four-run lead entering the sixth, he could’ve been given the loss if Watson couldn’t get to the seventh-inning stretch unscathed.
How did the anxious Pirates supporters at PNC Park respond to Burnett walking off the field? With a standing ovation, of course. All for a guy who was removed with three runners on base in a two-run game, making an inexcusable loss suddenly plausible.
Of course, Watson retired Ethier on a harmless groundout, the Pirates posted two more runs in the bottom of the inning, and Jason Grilli and Joel Hanrahan covered the final two innings to end Pittsburgh’s three-game losing streak. Burnett was credited with his 15th win, the first Pirates pitcher to reach that milestone in more than a decade.
All of which helps build the powerful positive narrative on A.J. Burnett. He’s been an anchor for a rotation that needed one, a welcome injection of professionalism and savvy for a pitching staff that had talent but no role model to emulate.
The 35-year-old, 13-year MLB veteran has provided all that and more, as his performance on the whole has been very good, matching his rapport with his Pirates teammates. The trade that brought Burnett to Pittsburgh from the New York Yankees has worked out beautifully in just about every way one could imagine.
Pirates fans have wholeheartedly embraced Burnett, and it’s easy to understand why. When you’ve been beaten down by 19 years of losing, you cling to anything that holds the promise of ending that suffering. This year’s team has been different, and Burnett has been one of the main protagonists in this summer’s drama.
Burnett’s demonstrative personality has also been a great fit for a team trying to defy its recent history. Wednesday’s incident in which he told the Dodgers’ Hanley Ramirez to “sit the f*** down” is like catnip for anyone who’s watched two decades of Pittsburgh baseball malaise.
Certainly, the on-field results have to be there – hello, Doug Mientkiewicz! – and Burnett has been largely outstanding until his last two starts. After nearly no-hitting the Cubs July 31 and stifling the Reds Aug. 5, A.J. fell flat in consecutive home appearances against the Padres and Dodgers.
Interestingly enough, he also received a warm cheer when he left last Saturday’s game against San Diego, even though the Padres danced around 10 strikeouts to post five runs in 5 2/3 innings. Pirates fans are applying Little League logic to Burnett: he gets praise if he tries hard.
Still, the grace period will only last so long if the results continue to slack. Pirates pitching has regressed to a rather alarming degree in August, but they still hold a one game lead over St. Louis for the NL’s second wild-card berth as they begin a three-game series vs. the Cardinals Friday night.
If the team drops out of contention, bitterness may reign in Pittsburgh in the season’s final weeks. But as long as the Bucs are in it, this year’s club will continue to be the darlings of western Pennsylvania. As the tattooed, passionate, new face on the Pirates, Burnett will also keep getting the “favorite son” treatment.
Centerfielder Andrew McCutchen is the Pirates’ best player and resident superstar, but for now he’ll have to share the fans’ unconditional love.
More from Matt Gajtka: Steelers tight end Heath Miller in line for big season