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AP - Sports

The way Pittsburgh's A.J. Burnett is pitching, he could wind up winning the NL's comeback player award.

All Burnett's concerned with is making sure his team keeps piling up victories.

Burnett tries to win his eighth straight start Thursday afternoon and help the visiting Pirates split their four-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies, who are not expected to start Chase Utley a day after his impressive return.

Since Burnett was blasted by St. Louis on May 2, Pittsburgh (39-35) has won his last nine starts with the right-hander earning the decision in the last seven behind a 1.87 ERA. This matches the longest consecutive start winning streak of his career, set with Florida in 2005, and is the best by a Pirate since Dock Ellis won eight straight in 1974.

"It's nice because it means the team is winning,'' Burnett (8-2, 3.24 ERA) said after allowing two hits and three walks over six scoreless innings in Friday's 4-1 win over Detroit.

Another victory will be his ninth - a number he didn't reach last season with the New York Yankees until Aug. 15 - and he is on pace to threaten the career-high 18 victories he had for Toronto in 2008.

Burnett hasn't faced the Phillies (36-41) since June 16, 2010, when he yielded six runs in 3 1-3 innings of a 6-3 loss for the Yankees. This will be his first start at Citizens Bank Park since getting knocked around for six runs in two innings of an 8-6 loss in Game 5 of the 2009 World Series.

Pittsburgh beat the Phillies 11-7 on Wednesday, winning for the third time in its last 19 games in Philadelphia. Michael McKenry had a three-run homer, Andrew McCutchen hit a two-run blast and Casey McGehee had a solo shot as the Pirates took advantage of Charlie Manuel's decision to use strictly relief pitchers because of Sunday's doubleheader.

The pitching might not get any better in the finale with starter Kyle Kendrick (2-7, 5.24), who has an 8.10 ERA while going 0-3 in his last four starts.

Kendrick allowed three runs, six hits and three walks while lasting just four innings in Saturday's 7-6 win over Tampa Bay. The righty made two relief appearances against the Pirates in April, and is 4-1 with a 3.25 ERA in five career starts in the series.

McCutchen, who's 3 for 4 against Kendrick since 2011, is batting .444 with three home runs and 11 RBIs in his last 11 games.

McKenry, filling in for injured catcher Rod Barajas, is 7 for 11 with two homers and six RBIs - half his season total - in this series.

"He's really showed up well,'' Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We needed him.''

The Phillies need Utley, Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay to all be healthy if they're going to have any chance of winning a sixth straight NL East crown.

Utley returned Wednesday after missing the first 76 games because of a chronic problem in both knees, and he didn't miss a beat. He homered in his first at-bat and finished with three hits, but the loss dropped Philadelphia nine games back of division-leading Washington.

"It was a good first step, but obviously winning would've been ideal,'' said Utley, who won't start Thursday according to Manuel.

Until Utley and Howard, who is scheduled to start a rehab stint Thursday, return to full strength, the offense continues to lean on Carlos Ruiz. Ruiz, who leads the majors with a .364 average, has homered in each of his last two games and is 8 for 13 in the series.

Ruiz is 3 for 3 with a homer in the regular season against Burnett.

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