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PIT@CHC: Marte homers with two outs in the ninth

CHICAGO -- A.J. Burnett's comeback took a back seat to Starling Marte's bring-them-back-to-life. Ultimately, however, the Cubs could not be held back, and as a result the Pirates are back in a tie for the division's lead.

But if there is such a thing in baseball as steeling yourself for the war even while losing the battle, the Bucs may have passed that test on Sunday at Wrigley Field.

A couple of innings before Dioner Navarro's sacrifice fly with the bases loaded and none out in the 11th inning gave Chicago a 4-3 victory, Marte had fueled the best comeback moment yet of a team that has stepped out of more graves than Count Dracula.

Not only were the Pirates down to their final strike, they lingered there for five pitches. Marte took the first two from Cubs closer Kevin Gregg for balls, fouled off the next couple, then lined the fifth halfway up the left-center bleachers to make it 3-3.

"Usually, I try to get a base hit, then maybe steal a base," Marte said. "But in that situation, yes, I'm trying to hit a home run, sure. He got the first couple in, and I fouled them off. Then he threw a two-seamer more out, that I could extend on, and I was able to hit it for a home run.

"Yes, it was great. One of my best moments," he added, grinning broadly.

But those emotions were dulled by the Cubs' rebuttal and 2-1 series win. The loss lowered the Bucs into a tie with the Cardinals, with both clubs at 53-34. It also marked the first time the Bucs had lost consecutive games in more than a month, since a June 3-5 sweep in Atlanta.

"We're playing the best team in the National League with the best record," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "To come off a [Friday] loss like we did and win two out of three, it was nice beating the best team in baseball. Holding them down, our pitching did a good job. We had some timely hits and caught the ball and did a good job."

"A couple situations challenged us a little bit," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, thinking of missed scoring opportunities and a misplay that resulted in one of the two runs off Burnett being unearned. "But we continued to battle. Then Marte rides that ball out of the park. These games just battle-test you."

"They never quit, man," said Burnett, "and that's something you can't teach. Play 'til the last out, that's what we do. Marte battled through some pitches, got to a point he could get extended, and you see what happened. But the Cubs had a lot of fight left in them, too."

The defeat began to take shape on Anthony Rizzo's opposite-field leadoff single off Bryan Morris {4-3) in the 11th. Rizzo moved to second on another opposite-field single, by righty-hitting Alfonso Soriano, and both were able to advance when catcher Russell Martin's attempted throw to pick off Rizzo sailed into center for an error.

"In making the transfer [from my mitt to my throwing hand], I just never had a good grip on the ball, and it took off," Martin said.

The error was the first of the season for Martin, who earlier in the game had thrown out his 17th baserunner.

"We're playing to win," Hurdle said of Martin's errant throw, "and if you've watched that guy play all year … You just move on."

And that inning had to move on, so Luis Valbuena was issued an intentional walk to load the bases and bring up Navarro, who lifted a 2-2 pitch to right fielder Travis Snider, who caught the ball but clearly had no play at the plate, and Rizzo scored.

Burnett, back from a month's layoff with a torn calf muscle, tendered five solid innings on a no-margin-for-error Sunday in Wrigley Field. That extended to left-handed reliever Tony Watson, who worked two innings and was beaten by the only man he did not retire.

Scott Hairston, the Cubs' southpaw-seeking missile, took Watson into orbit with a solo shot as a pinch-hitter to break a 2-2 tie with two outs in the seventh. Hairston's eighth homer of the season was his second of the series, following his two-run blow off Francisco Liriano on Friday for the Cubs' only runs in that 6-2 loss.

Any sweat Burnett broke was due to the humidity. He had a relatively calm time with the Cubs, whose two runs scored on an error and an out. In five overall efficient innings -- at 13 pitches per -- he allowed three hits and the one earned run, with two walks and three strikeouts before departing in favor of a pinch-hitter during a foiled sixth-inning rally.

"There was nothing not to like," Hurdle said of his returning ace. "The ball came out of his hand very crisply, efficiently. He was throwing a big curve from a couple of different angles. It was a very good outing."

Any lingering concerns about Burnett's ability to spring off the mound to field plays were allayed when the very first batter he faced, Julio Borbon, hit a grounder, and Burnett ran to cover first.

"I don't want to go five," said Burnett, who was pleased about everything except the limit imposed on him. "But I realize the pitch count and all. Definitely, everything felt great getting back out there. The more I threw, the more I felt in the groove."

Burnett sailed through the first two innings, but fell behind, 2-0, in the third. Starlin Castro's one-out double put Cubs on second and third, and Chicago took turns scoring on Garrett Jones' fielding error on Rizzo's grounder to first and Soriano's sacrifice fly.

The Bucs tied it up on RBI doubles by Andrew McCutchen in the fourth and Jose Tabata in the fifth.

McCutchen's two-bagger scored Tabata, who had begun the fourth with the first of two doubles that continued his impressive comeback, both from last season's struggles and the strained left oblique that had him out for 6 1/2 weeks until his July 3 activation. In five consecutive starts in right field since, Tabata is 7-for-17. Comments