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PITTSBURGH – A.J. Burnett knew his margin for error was slim. It tends to happen when the other guy on the mound is one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Yet Burnett was nearly flawless for seven innings against the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday, matching Seattle ace Felix Hernandez pitch for pitch. By his estimate, Burnett made two mistakes.
Or, at least one too many.
A wild pitch led to one run and Jesus Montero's solo shot to center in the seventh broke a tie as the Mariners escaped with a 2-1 win and a split of the brief two-game interleague series.
"You know it's going to be a close ballgame," Burnett said. "You try to throw up zeroes just like he did. You know he's going to go out there and compete as much as I like to compete. It was fun."
Even if it could have — and maybe should have — been a win.
Burnett (3-3) gave up two runs on two hits in seven innings, striking out nine to boost his National League-leading total to 66. Yet he bounced a 2-2 curveball in front of backup catcher Mike McKenry that let Michael Saunders scamper home for a run in the fourth. The wild pitch came just after a Burnett fastball was ruled just a bit outside by home plate umpire Paul Schrieber.
The call could have gone either way. Yet instead of being out of the inning, the Mariners found a way to tie the score.
"I thought it was a close pitch," Burnett said of the borderline call before adding with a laugh "sometimes think my stuff's nasty, so sometimes (umpires) miss it too."
Burnett's other mistake came when Montero took a 91 mph heater and sent it just beyond the reach of centerfielder Andrew McCutchen for his third homer of the season.
"One ball that comes over, he could have popped it up, he could have done anything with it," Burnett said. "He put a decent swing on it. He's a strong kid. I've seen that before. And he got it, so what can you do?"
Starling Marte had two hits for Pittsburgh and Andrew McCutchen added an RBI single but the Pirates couldn't take advantage of a brief wobble by Hernandez in the first. Marte led off with a double and scored when McCutchen singled to center. Garrett Jones followed with a walk, but the inning ended with McKenry grounding into a double play.
The Pirates went just 1 for 6 with runners in scoring position and have made a habit of squandering early opportunities.
"It just seems that we've got to find a better answer," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. "Maybe it's our mindset but we're getting pitched tough. It's not like it's chopped liver we've been facing."
Hernandez (5-2) struck out five and walked one to improve to 4-0 in his last five starts while shaving his ERA to 1.53. Tom Wilhelmsen worked the ninth for his ninth save.
The showdown between the two staff aces lived up to its billing. Hernandez entered the game ranked in the top five in the American League in ERA and strikeouts while Burnett came in unbeaten in nearly a month and second in the National League in strikeouts behind New York's Matt Harvey.
"The game was advertised with two pitchers out there battling like two kids in the backyard," Hurdle said.
Outside of the two walks in the fourth, Burnett had little trouble with one of the worst offenses in the majors until the seventh, when Montero took a 91 mph fastball and put it in the first row of seats in center. Hernandez and Wilhelmsen took care of the rest as the Mariners improved to 8-4 in their last 12 games as they try to bounce back from a horrific start.
"I was OK," Hernandez said. "I didn't have my very best stuff but I battled hard. I knew I would have to battle because A.J. is a very good pitcher and he was on his game today. It was a tough game. Luckily, I kept us in the game and we were able to win."
NOTES: The Pirates released RHP Jonathan Sanchez on Wednesday. The team designated him for assignment last week ... The Mariners are off on Thursday then host Oakland for a weekend series starting Friday. Hisashi Iwakuma (3-1, 1.61) starts for Seattle against Dan Straily (1-0, 5.94) ... Pittsburgh begins a four-game set in New York against the Mets on Thursday. Jeff Locke (3-1, 3.21) faces New York's Dillon Gee (2-4, 6.16) ... The Pirates called up 2007 second-round pick RHP Duke Welker on Wednesday. Welker was 3-0 with a 0.00 ERA at Triple-A Indianapolis this season.