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Burnett, Liriano pack unexpected 1-2 punch

Burnett, Liriano pack unexpected 1-2 punch

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Burnett, Liriano pack unexpected 1-2 punch

PITTSBURGH -- When the season began four months ago, no one expected the Pirates to have the Major Leagues' top record in the first week of August, but everyone expected Clint Hurdle to be able to count on the best 1-2 combination of starters he has ever had.

That's because Hurdle said so, repeatedly calling A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez his best 1-2 punch ever.

So we're 0-for-2 in expectations. The Bucs do start the week with the Majors' best winning percentage (.604, on a record of 67-44), hard to fathom by many for several reasons, but mostly because Burnett has only five wins and Rodriguez hasn't pitched in two months.

However, Hurdle still packs his best-ever 1-2 punch. Now it consists of Burnett, hampered by poor run support, and Francisco Liriano, who strengthens his candidacy for a National League Cy Young Award every time he takes the mound.

"Yeah, we can erase that," Hurdle said of the top rank he'd awarded Burnett and Rodriguez, "and pencil Frankie in. We have two grown men who are pitching in a really good place."

The last two games, that place was PNC Park. On Saturday, Liriano pitched two-hit ball for seven innings for his 12th win. On Sunday, Burnett went the route, in one sense accomplishing what he'd set out to do. He allowed just one run and fanned nine in a complete-game effort.

"Liriano was filthy, and when you take the ball behind him, you want to repeat what he did. So that was a good follow-up," Burnett said. "As nasty as he was [Saturday] night, I wanted to come out and be just as nasty."

Hurdle's take on the same sequence: "Frankie set the bar in a good place for us, and A.J. just pushed it higher."

Liriano's 12 wins in 16 starts, are already within two of the career high he had in 2010 with the Twins, in 31 starts. His 2.02 ERA would rank second in the NL if he had enough innings to qualify, which he lacks since his start to the season was delayed until May 11 by a right arm fracture. Liriano could be two starts from qualifying, which is based on one inning pitched per each team game.

As for Burnett, much has been said about the effect of weak offensive support on his 5-7 record. But this should be the last word on that argument: Max Scherzer, the Detroit right-hander with the 16-1 record, has an ERA of 2.85; Burnett's is 2.73.

The NL Central-leading rotation only begins with Burnett and Liriano, obviously. Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton and rookie Gerrit Cole all have a big arm in the rotation's MLB-leading 3.18 ERA.

"That's how all our starters are: We want to one-up the guy before us," Burnett said. "Funnest staff I've ever been a part of."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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