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PIT@DET: McCutchen crushes two home runs in win

DETROIT -- Doing what comes naturally in an election year, Andrew McCutchen is mounting his own campaigns. Yes, plural: National Player of the month now, NL All-Star in the near-future.

McCutchen's political preferences aren't known, but his tastes in pitchers definitely lean left. As for a running mate, that obviously is Josh Harrison.

McCutchen drilled a pair of two-run homers, both with Harrison on base, in support of A.J. Burnett's tenacious six-inning pitching Saturday as the Pirates downed the Tigers, 4-3, in an impressive recovery from nearly having been no-hit by Justin Verlander the night before.

"No matter what happens, these guys always come back the next day fighting. That makes you go hard as a starting pitcher," said Burnett, who for his show-the-way toughness deserved equal billing with McCutchen.

Grinding and competing without his often-dominant stuff -- the two strikeouts matched his season-low, when he lasted only 2 2/3 innings in St. Louis -- Burnett still had enough to hand it over to the familiar relief shuttle. Jason Grilli (who did allow an unearned run), Juan Cruz and Joel Hanrahan, sealing his ninth save with a strikeout of Prince Fielder, took it from there.

"He had to battle through it. He's modeling behavior for the other pitchers, and that's definitely another way he brings value to the team," manager Clint Hurdle said of Burnett.

Still, McCutchen stood on the day's tallest pedestal. Even the other principals recognized that.

"Everybody threw in something," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Andrew threw in a bunch."

With his second multi-homer game in three days, McCutchen compulsively continued two habits: May home runs, and left-hander abuse.

He added two hits off the rookie Drew Smyly to a string of 10 hits his last 15 at-bats against southpaws, raising his season average against them to .450. And the homers gave him seven for the month. The only month in which McCutchen has hit more was August 2009, when he hit eight, and he's still got 10 games to match or surpass that.

"It all goes back to the hard work I did in the offseason to get ready," said McCutchen, whose main offseason project was finding a comfortable batting style to stick to. "I stuck with it, even when I wasn't feeling too good with it.

"It's all about getting into a comfortable hitting position and making solid contact with the ball. I'm not missing my pitches. When I swing, I'm squaring up. I'm feeling good at the plate. And I've been able to get some balls out of the park."

As for this month, in addition to the seven homers, McCutchen is batting .420 with 13 RBIs and is aspiring for his first career player of the month award, which would also make him the first Pirates player to receive the honor since Pedro Alvarez, in September of his rookie 2010 season.

The most impressive part of the breakout could be that McCutchen is doing this in a lineup that offers virtually no protection. The overall depressed state of the Pirates offense is already a trite subject, but this is another way of looking at it.

Given that, opposing managers' and pitchers' choices to continue pitching to McCutchen became a postgame topic.

For his part, the outfielder said he always has to be ready to hit because "if I'm surprised that they're pitching to me, it means I'm going up there thinking about the wrong thing. So in the back of my head, I always have to be ready."

"They think they can get him out," Hurdle said. "There's also something to be said for not missing pitches he may have been missing before. Even [McCutchen] will tell you he missed a lot of pitches he should've hit [earlier in the season]. Now he's squaring them up."

Detroit manager Jim Leyland admired McCutchen's work, but was hardly surprised by it.

"I said for a couple years now I think he's one of the better looking young players in baseball," Leyland said. "He's got a lot of talent, he can fly, he's got power. He's a really good looking player."

Burnett (2-2) needed 106 pitches to get through his six innings, yet avoided damage with the exception of a home-run swing by Fielder.

Burnett kept Detroit to two runs, despite allowing seven hits and three walks, to get crossed off Smyly's (1-1) idols list. Arkansas native Smyly was born nine miles from Burnett's North Little Rock home and grew up rooting for the local hero. Smyly was 10 when Burnett bagged his first Major League win -- and 22 when Burnett got his latest.

McCutchen got in his first blow by following Harrison's bunt single in the first with a 418-foot drive to left-center. Soon after Fielder wiped out that 2-0 lead with his own two-run blow in the third, McCutchen answered with his second homer in the fifth, with Harrison aboard after getting hit by a Smyly pitch.

McCutchen's actions trumped those of Fielder, whose third-inning trot around the bases against the Pirates had to be nostalgic. He'd done that 27 times with the Brewers; his 28 homers vs. the Bucs are the second-most among active players, trailing only Albert Pujols' 48.

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