PITTSBURGH - A.J. Burnett steadied the Pittsburgh Pirates after their most difficult loss of the season and also made some history Saturday night.
Burnett pitched seven strong innings as the Pirates beat the Cincinnati Reds 4-2 at PNC Park for just their second win in the last six games.
The Pirates' victory came a night after they blew a 5-2 lead in the ninth and lost 6-5 to the Reds in 10 innings in the opener of a three-game series between National League Central contenders.
"He was just awesome," Pirates catcher Russell Martin said. "He gave us the start we really needed. His intensity was high. His pitch execution was excellent. He had a great curveball, great command. He just kept us in the game all the way through. He was dominating. I like him that way."
Burnett helped the Pirates keep pace in the NL Central as they remained in second place, two games behind the St. Louis Cardinals, who beat the Brewers 7-2 at Milwaukee. The Reds fell into third place, three games behind the Cardinals with seven to play, as they had their four-game winning streak snapped.
Pittsburgh (89-66) also took a one-game lead over Cincinnati (88-67) for the first wild card. The Reds are 4 1/2 games ahead of the Washington Nationals (83-71), whose game against the Miami Marlins was rained out, for the second wild card.
The Pirates and Reds conclude their series Sunday afternoon then meet again in a three-game series at Cincinnati next week to finish the regular season.
"We wanted to take all three but we'll have to settle for two," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "Sunday's) game becomes very important when you consider where we are now."
Using a dominant curveball as his out pitch, Burnett continued his stellar pitching at home in the final regular-season start at PNC Park this year as he allowed two runs and four hits with 12 strikeouts and three walks. Though Burnett was only 5-4 at home, he had a fine 2.37 ERA and did not allow more than three earned runs in any of 14 starts.
Burnett became the first right-handed pitcher in Pirates' history and third overall to have 200 strikeouts. Oliver Perez was the last to reach that plateau with 2004 while Bob Veale did so four times - from 1964-66 and in 1969.
The last time Burnett had 12 strikeouts in a game was Aug. 27, 2009 while pitching for the New York Yankees against Toronto.
"I was just focused, I was locked in and it was probably the best command of that hook I've had in a long time," Burnett said. "I had a put away pitch tonight and it's a lot different when you have those."
Jason Grilli notched his 31 save in 32 opportunities but first since July 21 by pitching a scoreless ninth inning, two days before he went on the disabled list with a strained right forearm. Grilli was out until Sept. 3 and had served as a set-up reliever while working his way back into shape.
However, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle decided to go with Grilli on Saturday night after Melancon blew his second save opportunity in three days in Friday night's loss.
"I'm just a competitor," Grilli said. "I want the ball. I want to participate. Watching these guys do it for so long made me want to come back and do it with them. It was a big win obviously and a lot of fun to be out there.
"If you don't like that, you don't like Christmas. It's what you want, to play meaningful games at the end of the year. That's what you grow up dreaming about in the backyard."
Homer Bailey (11-11) had his nine-start streak without a loss snapped as he allowed four runs - two earned - and three hits in 5 2/3 innings while walking four and striking out three. His last loss was on July 26.
"The loss is on me," Bailey said. "I had the throwing error at first base, I didn't execute very well, I made a couple of bad pitches. (The offense) gave me a couple of runs to work with early and I didn't take advantage of it. I gave them all back and then some."
The Pirates scored twice in the sixth inning to break a 2-2 tie and move in front for good.
Andrew McCutchen drew a one-out walk and advanced to third when Bailey made a throwing error on a pickoff attempt. Justin Morneau also worked a walk and Marlon Byrd hit a sacrifice fly to score McCutchen with the go-ahead run.
Zach Duke relieved and gave up an RBI single to Pedro Alvarez that made it 4-2.
Jose Tabata had two hits for the Pirates and Ryan Ludwick had two hits for the Reds.
Cincinnati jumped on Burnett for single runs in the first and second innings. Ludwick hit an RBI single in the first and Zack Cozart led off the second by hitting his 12th home run of the season into the left-field bleachers.
Martin tied it at 2-2 in the bottom of the second when he ripped a two-run homer to left field, his 15th, off Bailey with two outs. The inning was prolonged when first baseman Joey Votto mishandled Pedro Alvarez's ground ball just before Martin connected.
"That's as much of an error as an error can be," Votto said.
NOTES: Cincinnati CF Shin-Soo Choo will miss at least two games after suffering a jammed left thumb Friday night when he dove headfirst into first base in an unsuccessful attempt to beat out an infield single. ... Melancon was 16-for-18 in save opportunities before failing to convert his last two. ... Reds RHP Bronson Arroyo (13-11, 3.56) will start against Pirates LHP Jeff Locke (10-6, 3.27) on Sunday in the finale of the three-game series.