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Giants-Pirates Preview

AP - Sports

Thanks to the likes of A.J. Burnett, the Pittsburgh Pirates will head into the All-Star break atop their division for the first time in 15 years.

Burnett, however, will be looking to bounce back from his worst start in two months when the NL Central-leading Pirates conclude their home series against Tim Lincecum and the San Francisco Giants on Sunday.

James McDonald pitched seven strong innings while Neil Walker and Michael McKenry each had two hits with an RBI on Saturday as Pittsburgh (47-37) won 3-1 - its ninth victory in 11 games - to even this weekend set.

"Every day is a statement day,'' McDonald said.

The victory guaranteed the Pirates will head into the break with at least a share of first place in the Central for the first time since 1997, when they were 43-43 and held a one-game lead over Houston.

Pittsburgh was 47-43 and one game out of first at the All-Star break in 2011. The Pirates started the second half strong and briefly led the Central later in July, but finished 72-90 for their 19th straight losing season.

"This is very similar to the position we were in last year," manager Clint Hurdle said to his players. "What's going to be different? Let's do something different than what we did last year."

Oft-maligned during his tenure with the New York Yankees, Burnett (9-2, 3.74 ERA) has been a big reason for Pittsburgh's success in his first year on the Pirates. The right-hander is 8-0 with a 2.79 ERA in 11 starts since losing at St. Louis on May 2, but had his string of eight straight winning starts end when he allowed six runs and 12 hits in five innings of Tuesday's 8-7 victory over Houston.

Burnett is 5-2 with a 1.84 ERA in seven career starts against the Giants (46-39), but has not faced them since 2007.

After losing for the sixth time in eight games, San Francisco counters with Tim Lincecum (3-9, 6.08), who will likely welcome a break from his disastrous first half.

The two-time NL Cy Young award winner ended a 10-game winless stretch when he allowed four hits and struck out eight in seven innings of a 3-0 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 27. However, he regressed Tuesday at Washington by giving up a season-high eight runs and nine hits in 3 1-3 innings of a 9-3 loss.

"Obviously it's easy to look at what happened and think I took a step back,'' Lincecum said. "I think that's where I've been wrong, just looking at all the negatives and whether or not it was a step forward or a step back as opposed to where I can go from here. Yes, it's a bad outing, but the next outing has nothing to do with (it). It's about getting better."

The right-hander is 1-1 with a 3.10 ERA in four career starts versus Pittsburgh.

Walker is hitless in two at-bats against Lincecum, but has batted .448 (13 for 29) in eight games against the Giants at PNC Park. He's also batting .429 with nine RBIs during an 11-game hitting streak.

McKenry is 12 for 30 with four homers and 12 RBIs in his last nine contests.

San Francisco All-Star Melky Cabrera went 0 for 4 on Saturday, but his .353 batting average ranks among the major league leaders, just behind Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen (.359).

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