PITTSBURGH — The St. Louis Cardinals didn't know they'd be facing A.J. Burnett on Saturday night until four hours before the first pitch.
The coaching staff quickly threw together video of Burnett during spring training and his three rehab starts as he worked his way back from a fractured right orbital bone.
The cram session didn't quite work.
The Cardinals mustered three hits in seven innings against Burnett then couldn't capitalize on a couple of late chances in a 2-0 loss.
"We had a good approach, a good idea what we were going to see," manager Mike Matheny said. "We had those opportunities to do something and couldn't get it done. We're not going to use the late notice as an excuse for this one."
Burnett, who missed the first three weeks of the year after a ball smacked off his face during a bunting drill in spring training just days after being traded from the Yankees, walked two and struck out seven while dominating baseball's best offensive team.
The Cardinals are off to their best start since 2008 thanks to the National League's best offense. St. Louis came in leading the NL in batting average (.287), home runs (20) and hits (142).
Burnett and five relievers limited the Cardinals to five hits, all singles.
"I think Pittsburgh got (Burnett) for the reason he showed tonight," St. Louis third baseman David Freese said. "He was spot-on."
Joel Hanrahan worked out of a two-on, one-out jam in the ninth for his second save of the season.
St. Louis starter Jake Westbrook (2-1) continued his strong spring, giving up only a pair of RBI singles to Pedro Alvarez, walking two and striking out six as his ERA moved from 0.64 to 1.31.
"I felt like I made some decent pitches," Westbrook said. "I think they hit a couple balls hard. I still feel good about the way I performed."
Westbrook was solid but Burnett was spectacular, throwing 53 of his 76 pitches for strikes and looking like the No. 1 starter the Pirates envisioned when they traded for him in February.
Not a bad debut for a player who woke up planning to pitch at Double-A Altoona for one last rehab start but was activated off the 15-day disabled list in the afternoon when the Pirates scratched starter Kevin Correia because of pain in his side.
Though Burnett struggled during three minor league starts, Hurdle believed a return to the big leagues would rejuvenate the staff ace.
The 35-year-old certainly looked a little hyped up in his first start in the National League since he pitched for the Marlins in 2005. He walked Rafael Furcal on four pitches, gave up a single to Matt Carpenter and walked Matt Holliday to load the bases with no outs.
Just as the boos started — perhaps reminding him of his three tumultuous seasons in New York — Burnett settled down, striking out Carlos Beltran and Freese then getting Yadier Molina to line out to shortstop Clint Barmes to end the threat.
Burnett jumped into the air and pumped his first when Barmes came down with the ball. His jitters out of the way, Burnett mowed down the Cardinals. He retired 12 batters at one point while working efficiently.
"He kept rolling," Matheny said. "He had a good day. Times we had opportunities to capitalize we didn't get it done."
Burnett's his only real excitement during his last six innings came when he stepped into the batter's box.
Rod Barajas singled with one out in the third, bringing Burnett to the plate in a bunting situation. The crowd roared "no" when Burnett squared up to lay one down, wary Burnett would make himself vulnerable to another ill-fated attempt.
"I thought they were yelling for Rod to 'Go'," Burnett said with a laugh. "That's good. It shows they're into it."
Not to worry. Burnett walked on four pitches, getting a relieved round of applause as he trotted to first.
Yet the Cardinals mustered little after Burnett settled down. Their best chance to score came in the eighth when they put runners on second and third with one out.
Pittsburgh reliever Tony Watson struck out Carpenter and was replaced by Jason Grilli, who got Holliday to whiff and end the threat.