SAN FRANCISCO -- When the Pirates took the field Sunday afternoon, they found an open door to first place in the National League Central.
Ryan Vogelsong slammed it in their faces.
The Giants right-hander beguiled the Bucs on two hits for eight innings, giving San Francisco a 4-0 victory over A.J. Burnett and the Pirates in AT&T Park.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle called it a sleight-of-hand masterpiece.
"It always seemed like whatever we were looking for, something else came out of his hand," Hurdle said. "He controlled the bat speed all day."
Homeward bound for a six-game PNC Park stand, the Pirates could not take advantage of losses by the Cardinals and the Reds. Pittsburgh remained in a flat-footed tie atop the division with St. Louis.
And do you know what Burnett was telling his teammates in the shower and in the clubhouse, not long after he'd allowed Pablo Sandoval to blow open a tight game and knock him out with a two-run triple with one out in the eighth?
"That's why we're here, to play for those moments," Burnett had reminded them. "As bad as the results turned out, just being out there in that situation ... it's awesome. You want different results, but that's the reason we're here."
The Pirates thus wrapped up a 4-3 West Coast swing. The three games the Pirates lost on this trip were started by pitchers with ERAs of 5.12 (Ian Kennedy ), 4.53 (Tim Lincecum ) and 6.29 (Vogelsong).
"But we've seen him good. He's very good and competitive," Hurdle said of Vogelsong, whose season was interrupted by a fractured right hand. "He just changed speeds. He stayed with his game plan, and we couldn't complicate things for him."
Burnett must've sensed that something was wrong when the Pirates scored eight runs for him in his last start, in San Diego. That was, by far, the most support given in any start to a pitcher with a chronic runs deficiency. Something had to give.
"That's the game, man. I can't control that," said Burnett, the recipient of a total of 14 runs in his nine losses. "Give the guy credit; he came in and kept us down."
Vogelsong issued one walk and struck out five in a dominant punctuation to his comeback from a long absence with the injury.
It was the Bucs' ill fortune to show up as Vogelsong was ready to get his full game back on from a near-three month absence after breaking his right hand swinging at a Craig Stammen pitch on May 20. This was only the one-time Pirates prospect's fourth start since coming off the DL.
"They've been tough on me," Vogelsong said of the Bucs. "They beat me three times in a row. So it was nice to have a good game against that team. Obviously they're a good team. They're in first place for a reason."
Vogelsong pitched to the compass and kept the Pirates disoriented.
"He played east-west, north-south," Hurdle said. "Just made pitches. He's pitched and won big games -- he knows the art of pitching. We had a couple of chances and weren't able to counterpunch."
The Pirates got only two men as far as second against Vogelsong. In the third, Andrew Lambo singled and moved up on Burnett's sacrifice bunt; in the seventh, Andrew McCutchen got an extra base when third baseman Pablo Sandoval threw away his infield single.
"He did mix it up well," said Garrett Jones, the lefty-hitting first baseman who wore one of the many collars distributed by Vogelsong. "And kept the ball on the corners, didn't give us much to square up. He can throw any pitch on either corner, and when you're hitting the spots like that, it's tough to hit, to crush, to drive anything."
Brandon Belt's inability to get a proper read on a shallow flare appeared to cost the Giants a chance to get in an early lick on Burnett. Belt, after doubling, was on second with one away when Sandoval lifted a pop into the left-center Bermuda Triangle beyond shortstop. Belt held his ground until the ball did drop, so he had to stop at third. Roger Kieschnick then bounced into an inning-ending double play.
Two-out lightning did strike Burnett the next inning, and it began with a five-pitch walk of Gregor Blanco, who was able to come around to score on consecutive singles by Brandon Crawford and Buster Posey.
"They chipped him for a run, but the way A.J. pitched -- that was his game out there," Hurdle said by way of explaining Burnett's right to try to pitch his way out of the eighth-inning jam, even with his pitch count over 110.
A pair of singles had brought up Sandoval with men at the corners, meaning Burnett was one well-placed grounder from a double play that would've taken a 1-0 game into the ninth.
"I gave him the ball," Hurdle said. "I've got a lot of confidence in A.J. and felt he'd figure a way to get out of it."
"I wouldn't expect it any other way," Burnett agreed.
Sandoval ripped Burnett's 116th pitch into AT&T Park's own faraway notch in right-center, making it 3-0. Reliever Tony Watson allowed Joaquin Arias' RBI double to add a fourth run to Burnett's line.
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.