There are some legitimate questions about the final three slots in the Pittsburgh Pirates' rotation as September nears, but there's little doubt about the effectiveness of Clint Hurdle's top two starters.
The offense also appears to be in better shape.
A night after Francisco Liriano gave the Pirates a share of the NL Central's top spot, A.J. Burnett looks to continue his home dominance of the St. Louis Cardinals and lift his club to the outright lead Saturday night.
Pittsburgh (78-56) traded for longtime Minnesota first baseman Justin Morneau on Saturday, hoping the four-time All Star can give the Pirates' middling offense a needed jolt heading into the final month of the season. The Twins obtained outfielder Alex Presley and either a player to be named or cash after Pittsburgh made its second major move in five days. Pittsburgh sent a pair of minor leaguers to the New York Mets on Tuesday in exchange for outfielder Marlon Byrd and catcher John Buck.
"We've got more depth, we've got more options than we had four days ago,'' Hurdle said. "We're a better team. We're a stronger team.''
The 32-year-old Morneau hit .259 with 17 homers and 74 RBIs this season for Minnesota and is finishing off a red-hot month in which he smacked nine home runs.
"I think he's found some ways to spark some things offensively in the second half,'' Hurdle said.
Hurdle is hopeful Morneau would make it to the clubhouse in time for Saturday night's game.
Charlie Morton's rotation spot was in jeopardy as recently as Aug. 1, Gerrit Cole is being given extra rest as his innings mount and Jeff Locke has pitched so poorly after his All-Star first half that he's been sent to Double-A while his next start is skipped.
But there's no uncertainty at the top of the Pirates' rotation. Liriano allowed two hits over eight innings Friday in beating the Cardinals (78-56) for the third time in the past 33 days as Pittsburgh pulled even atop the NL Central with a 5-0 win.
Garrett Jones broke out of a 1-for-29 slump by going 3 for 4 with a homer and four RBIs.
"Big game, big series," Jones said. "I made some adjustments and took it into the game and I felt good. I felt aggressive and strong and it was nice to be able to contribute to the win."
Burnett (6-9, 3.18 ERA) takes the ball next, and though he can't match Liriano's 1.21 ERA at PNC Park, he hasn't been far behind. The right-hander has posted a 2.01 ERA in his last nine home starts, a stretch in which he's held the Cardinals to one run and four hits over 14 innings while striking out 17.
Burnett is 2-1 with a 1.35 ERA in four home outings against St. Louis since joining the Pirates.
Hurdle certainly seems to like the 1-2 punch at the top of his rotation.
"I just like the way we're going about our business, throwing our best two guys back to back," Hurdle told the team's official website. "... When they are on their game, they can be a force."
This will be Burnett's first home appearance since Aug. 4 after going 1-2 with a 5.55 ERA in his four straight road starts, including a 6-5, 12-inning loss at Busch Stadium on Aug. 15. He pitched four clean innings and was staked to a 4-0 lead before being charged with five runs and failing to survive the fifth.
His mound opponent Saturday will be the same as it was earlier this month. Lance Lynn (13-8, 4.02) gave up four fifth-inning runs that day and wound up lasting 5 1-3, the beginning of a rocky three-start stretch in which the right-hander has posted a 5.89 ERA.
Three of the four runs Lynn allowed over his seven innings in Sunday's 5-2 loss to Atlanta came in the first two innings.
"Hopefully for me, this was a building (block) going down the stretch," Lynn said. "I've got some starts coming up where I've got to be really good.
"And I plan on being really good."
Lynn hasn't been good often on the road, going 2-4 with a 6.06 ERA over his last eight starts outside of St. Louis. He's 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA in three starts at PNC Park, however.
Lynn has certainly had the number of two of the Pirates' best hitters. Andrew McCutchen is 4 for 23 with eight strikeouts versus Lynn, while Neil Walker is 3 for 17.
Allen Craig and David Freese are each 1 for 9 against Burnett, but Matt Carpenter is 8 for 18 with three extra-base hits.
Carpenter, who along with McCutchen is tied for the major league lead with 51 multi-hit games, is 5 for 42 (.119) in his career in Pittsburgh.