Looking to extend the longest winning streak by a Pittsburgh pitcher in nearly four decades, A.J. Burnett also has a chance to push the Pirates eight games above .500 for the first time in 20 seasons.
Burnett goes for a ninth consecutive winning start Tuesday night when the Pirates host the punchless Houston Astros.
Burnett (9-2, 3.31 ERA) has been a revelation for Pittsburgh (43-36) this year after spending three tumultuous seasons with the New York Yankees.
Despite starting 2012 on the disabled list, the right-hander is already two victories shy of his 2011 total. That's due to a career-high eight-start winning streak, during which he has a 2.16 ERA while holding opponents to a .212 average.
Burnett is the first Pirate to win eight starts in a row since Dock Ellis did it in 1974. Ellis also had a 10-game run three years earlier.
"The numbers might (exceed expectations)," manager Clint Hurdle told the team's official website Thursday after Burnett beat Philadelphia. "But as far as coming in and competing, I don't have expectations.
"The fact that he has run off eight in a row, that's significant, but there is a lot more that goes with that."
Burnett's surprising success wasn't enough to earn him a trip to his first All-Star game. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen - the NL player of the month for June - and closer Joel Hanrahan will represent the Pirates.
All seven of Burnett's home starts have ended in Pittsburgh victories, while he's gone 5-0 with a 1.11 ERA at PNC Park. That includes a 3-2, 12-inning win over Houston (32-48) on May 13, when he yielded two runs and six hits without walking a batter in eight innings.
The Pirates have won three in a row at home against their departing NL Central rival, opening this four-game series with an 11-2 victory Monday. The Astros' 9-29 road record is the worst in the majors, and they've dropped the last seven while scoring 12 runs and hitting .204.
"It's hard to put a finger on," catcher Jason Castro said. "I don't think we do anything differently on the road than we do at home. There is nothing I can think of, nothing anybody in this clubhouse has brought up that we might be able to change."
Lucas Harrell (7-6, 4.33) hasn't been an exception to Houston's road woes. He's 2-5 with a 6.36 ERA in opponents' ballparks, compared to a 1.99 ERA at Minute Maid Park.
The right-hander's last two starts have been at home, and he has allowed one run over 16 innings while striking out 16. He threw a six-hitter Wednesday in a 1-0 win over San Diego for his first career complete game.
Harrell, who is facing Pittsburgh for the first time, has a 9.68 ERA in his last three road starts.
He appears to be in for a stiff test against the Pirates, who are hitting .341 with 13 homers and 52 runs during a 5-1 stretch.
"Our lineup is amazing right now," Monday's winning pitcher James McDonald said. "It's like every guy is a tough out."
McCutchen has a .469 average with seven doubles, four homers and 15 RBIs in his last 15 games. He went 4 for 5 and scored three runs in the series opener after a sprained wrist sidelined him for Sunday's 5-4 loss at St. Louis.
Garrett Jones and Neil Walker are also producing for the Pirates, hitting back-to-back homers and combining for seven RBIs Monday. Jones is 9 for 20 with two homers and seven RBIs in his last five games, while Walker is 12 for 24 while plating seven runs in the past six.
Pedro Alvarez may return after missing Monday's game with leg cramps as the Pirates try to move eight games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 1992 season, also their last winning campaign.
- Houston Astros