MLB

Pirates-Reds Preview

Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez, right, tries to handle the throw from the outfield as Philadelphia Phillies' Odubel Herrera scores on a single by Carlos Ruiz during the second inning of an exhibition baseball game, Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Phi Photo:

Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez, right, tries to handle the throw from the outfield as Philadelphia Phillies' Odubel Herrera scores on a single by Carlos Ruiz during the second inning of an exhibition baseball game, Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Phi

A.J. Burnett is back in Pittsburgh's rotation, but whether the form that made him effective in his first stint with the Pirates returns with him remains to be seen.

His first start comes Thursday in a visit to the Cincinnati Reds, who will be trying to complete a three-game sweep.

After going 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in two years in Pittsburgh, Burnett moved to Philadelphia for 2014 and fell off considerably with a career-worst 8-18 record.

Granted, it was for a team that went 73-89, but Burnett saw his ERA jump to 4.59 and WHIP soar to 1.41 - the kind of complete-season numbers he'd only experienced in his three years with the New York Yankees.

The 38-year-old is beginning what he says will be his final season.

"I'm just a little older," Burnett told MLB's official website. "I feel better than I have in the past at this time, so I'm confident I'm where I need to be."

He didn't face Cincinnati with the Phillies, though he was 5-3 with a 2.35 ERA in nine starts while with the Pirates. Joey Votto might be happy to have him back in the Central Division considering his 7-for-20 mark, but Jay Bruce is just 3 for 27 with 10 strikeouts against Burnett.

His opposition doesn't have quite the experience. Anthony DeSclafani is making his Cincinnati debut after being acquired in the December deal that sent Mat Latos to Miami.

The 24-year-old was 2-2 with a 6.27 ERA in 13 games with the Marlins a season ago, and almost all of his struggles came in his five starting assignments with a 1-2 record and 7.40 ERA. The right-hander improved this spring with a 1-2 record and 3.64 ERA, though he allowed eight runs and four home runs in his final two exhibition starts.

"I was behind in the count and did not make good pitches and that happens," DeSclafani said. "Those are big league hitters, and they're going to capitalize on it. I'll try to be better."

He hasn't faced Pittsburgh, though Burnett doubled off him in a 6-5 Phillies win over the Marlins on May 20 with each of them earning their respective team's decision.

The Reds (2-0) have won 14 of 21 in the series since the start of last season, including four straight at home, though their last sweep came Sept. 10-12, 2012, in Cincinnati. They last started a season 3-0 in 2011 when they won their first five.

Wednesday's 5-4 victory came in 11 innings after rain delayed the start of the game. Votto singled home the winning run and was 2 for 6 with two RBIs. The Cincinnati first baseman has a pair of multihit games to start the season after playing in just 62 last season because of a quadriceps injury.

Leadoff hitter Billy Hamilton was 3 for 5 with three stolen bases. Over an 11-game hitting streak against the Pirates, he's batting .392 with 12 steals.

"He's pretty good at what he does," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We'll see if we can come up with a little something. The best thing is to keep him off base."

Pittsburgh (0-2) hasn't dropped three straight to open a season since a six-game skid started 2006. The Pirates are hitting .205 and are getting even less from the middle of the order. The Nos. 3-6 batters - Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Starling Marte and Pedro Alvarez - are a combined 5 for 31 (.161).

Pirates third baseman Josh Harrison went 1 for 5 after signing a four-year, $27.3 million contract before the game.

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