HOUSTON -- In the course of the last month, the Pirates have progressively lost many of the virtues that had them flying high for much of the season.A.J. Burnett's ability to pitch with a lead is not one of them. Supported with an 18-hit attack led by Sparky Harrison, Burnett was at his best Sunday, smooth-sailing to an 8-1 win over the Astros, putting an end to the Pirates' five-game losing streak. Sparky? Josh Harrison, inserted in the lineup as manager Clint Hurdle "looked for a spark," ignited a four-run fifth with one of his four hits and turned a couple of nifty defensive plays at second base. "He did that," Hurdle said of Harrison delivering the hoped-for jolt. "It was a welcome sight. He set some things up and added to some other situations." Burnett did most of the rest, mastering the Astros with a four-hitter that featured 11 strikeouts and exempted Hurdle from having to make any of the bullpen decisions that lately had become, well, adventuresome. Burnett got eight innings out of his 112 pitches, before Chad Qualls finished up with a perfect ninth. "He was in complete control from start to finish," Hurdle said. "Really good rhythm and tempo, had one of his best breaking balls of the year. His fastball command was spot-on. He was working ahead, putting people away. I also like the fact he retired 14 guys on three pitches or less." The views was the same from the other dugout. "A.J. Burnett had his best today," said Astros manager Tony DeFrancesco. "I thought he was in control the whole game. He just shut us down ...threw the curveball for a strike any time he wanted and had good sink on his fastball." Burnett's overdue 16th was a milestone win, as he became the first Pittsburgh pitcher with that many in 21 years. In 1991, Zane Smith (16-10) and John Smiley (20-8) both did it. "I guess I got a good catcher, a good defense and good hitters," Burnett said in response to a question about the significance of that benchmark. "It's always a team effort. When I get a 'W,' we're getting a 'W.'" This "W" brought the Pirates' 51-year National League history with the Astros to a satisfactory conclusion. Pittsburgh signed off with a 361-339 record in its rivalry with Houston -- which they will renew in 2013 as Interleague opponents, when the American League West's Astros visit Pittsburgh in July. Did Burnett have no-hit stuff? Moore or less -- the first three hits off him, until a one-out single in the eighth by Brandon Laird, were by Scott Moore, including a solo homer in the sixth. Moore's 3-for-4 on Sunday left him with a lifetime average of .500 against Burnett (6-for-12, with a pair of homers). The fifth-inning deluge repaid an overdue debt owed Burnett, who in the course of a six-start winless streak and the first four innings of this game, had been given the total support of seven runs in 39 2/3 innings. "It's good to get some runs, sure," Burnett said. "These guys come out and battle every day, tip your hat to them, they never stopped. Any time you can come back and put up a game like today, it's a good sign." The 18 hits, after they'd been held to a total of 11 in the first two games of the series, were a club high since July 2 when the Pirate also had 18 -- also against the Astros, also in a Jordan Lyles start. The rookie right-hander on Sunday kept his appointment with disaster, which usually comes about in the fifth inning. Hurdle noted that prior to the game, pointing out that Lyles' "challenge has been in the middle of the game." So the 21-year-old's own manager was certainly aware of the pattern, the reason DeFrancesco gave Lyles the hook in a 0-0 game. Of course, the bases were loaded when Lyles departed with none out, on singles by Alex Presley and Harrison and a walk of Andrew McCutchen. After all three of those runners scored, Lyles' ERA in the fifth inning of his starts jumped to 17.22. Lefty reliever Wesley Wright plunked pinch-hitter Gaby Sanchez on the foot to bring in the first run, righty reliever Mickey Storey walked pinch-hitter Jose Tabata to bring in another, then RBI singles by Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas made it 4-0. The Pirates recorded their biggest offensive inning since four runs in the fifth on Aug. 28 against St. Louis. The four runs, in fact, were more than the Bucs had scored in 14 of their previous 21 games. They were able to add on to further clear Burnett's way. In the sixth, Harrison again singled and scored on McCutchen's double. Burnett's own RBI single appropriately climaxed a three-run eighth that also featured run-scoring singles by Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata. Harrison singled yet again to lead off the ninth, logging the second four-hit game of his career. Happy anniversary, a day early: The first had come on Sept. 24, 2011, against the Reds. "It felt good," Harrison said of the outburst in a rare start -- only his fourth in September. "Anytime you can contribute to a win, you can feel good. Everyone in the lineup today contributed." Yes, but there was only one Sparky. "If the shoe fits, I'll wear it," Harrison said, laughing about the nickname. "I just play the game to have fun, and to enjoy it while I'm playing."
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.