PITTSBURGH -- Pennant races tend to have more plot twists than a Stephen King novel, and the Pirates are living up to that tradition.
They had waited nervously for Starling Marte, their dynamic leadoff man, to return from an extended absence with a hand injury. And now that Marte is well and able, Jose Tabata won't let him back in the lineup.
Tabata's performance in the leadoff spot and in left field has energized the Bucs' postseason drive, a development embraced both in the clubhouse and in the PNC Park stands.
"Marte is good to go," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle affirmed Sunday morning. "Jose stays in there because he's hot -- as good as we've seen him in three years. He's been very gritty in the box, has played solid defense, run the bases well. It's been a very good run for Jose."
Three consecutive multi-hit games have only underscored Tabata's response to the call issued by Marte's Aug. 18 hand injury. In 28 games since, the "forgotten" core member of the 2010 team has hit a lusty .308, including 10 extra-base hits and driving in 15 runs; that is only one fewer than he had driven in all last season, in 103 games.
"We haven't seen this Jose since April '11," said Hurdle, recalling the 22-year-old who hit .354 in the first two weeks of that season to start the wheels rolling toward the six-year contract he signed that August. "The consistency of at-bats ... he's ground out some very good ones and has taken some very aggressive swings in offensive counts."
Defining moment: Burnett delivers when needed
PITTSBURGH -- Nineteen months after arriving from The Bronx to rattle the Pirates' culture, A.J. Burnett validated general manager Neal Huntington's obsession to add a pitcher seemingly headed nowhere to a team that hadn't gone anywhere for two decades.
Burnett has spent his two Pittsburgh seasons offering quality from the mound. But he defined both himself and the Bucs' ethos with his Saturday night gem. He gave his best when his team needed it most.
"That was a big game -- from an organization standpoint, from a fan-base standpoint. The timing," manager Clint Hurdle said Sunday morning, recalling the Pirates' 4-2 triumph over Cincinnati. "The focus, the determination, the grit."
Answering the alarm of a potentially deflating 6-5 loss in 10 innings the previous night, Burnett throttled the Reds on four hits through seven innings that featured 12 strikeouts, including No. 200 of the season.
Burnett made 107 pitches, and induced swings-and-misses on nearly a quarter (24) of them.
"It very well could have been as good an effort as we've seen from him in the two years he's pitched here," Hurdle said. "He was brought here for those reasons."
"I just want to go out and win for these guys and for this city," said Burnett, this city's favorite adopted son of the moment, no question.
Going down the regular-season stretch and beyond, Hurdle does not hide his dependence on Burnett's leadership, moxie and pitching skills.
As the Bucs entered the final turn of the final lap, what were the manager's words to Burnett?
"I need you to get on a roll like a hog needs slop."
• Andrew McCutchen was the unanimous winner of the Roberto Clemente Award, presented by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America to the Pirates' most valuable player. Other winners as voted by members of the BBWAA were Francisco Liriano as the team's most outstanding pitcher and Neil Walker, recipient of the Chuck Tanner Award for media cooperation.
• For the first time since Sept. 12, 2004, the Pirates and Steelers -- who hosted the Chicago Bears in Heinz Field at 8:30 p.m. ET -- played home games on the same day Sunday.
• Asked for his outstanding memory of the Pirates' home schedule, Hurdle harkened back to the June 2 game in which Jeanmar Gomez's start lasted one inning as he handed a 4-0 lead to Cincinnati's Mat Latos ... and five relievers combined to blank the Reds for 10 innings while the Bucs battled back for a 5-4 win in 11.
"That was one of the many games early in the year when the guys out of the bullpen pitched multiple innings and kept us alive as we scratched back on offense for a big win late," Hurdle said.
First number, last word
17: Pirates club record for most home runs in a season by a catcher, a modest mark established in 1965 by Jim Pagliaroni; with seven games remaining, starting with Sunday's home finale, Russell Martin had 15 home runs.
"He's a backyard player. He lays it all out there every day. Intent, focus ... the mentality in the dugout." -- Hurdle on Justin Morneau, who arrived from Minnesota on Aug. 31 to take over as the Pirates' first baseman and cleanup hitter.
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.