MONTREAL - In a rotation filled with future Hall of Famers, John Burkett might be viewed as a fifth Beatle and might be overlooked in the long shadows cast by Cy Young plaques.
But hitters who look beyond Burkett do so at their own peril. A former 20-game winner who has been described by Greg Maddux as the staff's smartest pitcher, he showed the Montreal Expos all the elements of his craft Wednesday night.
Burkett, displaying a command of the strike zone that left the Expos shaking their heads, allowed just two hits in 7 2/3 innings in a 2-0 win at Olympic Stadium that boosted the Braves' win streak to five and kept them perfect on this 13-day, 12-game swing through the Northeast and Canada.
"Watching Burkett pitch is fun because it makes me realize all the mistakes I made the night before," Maddux said.
But for the crowd of 5,102 who came to see Expos loser Hideki Irabu take his first win this season, no such luck. Burkett gave the Braves the same thing he's given them all spring: another start long on quality and consistency. He gave up Vladimir Guerrero's fourth-inning single and Geoff Blum's double in the eighth, walked one batter, struck out seven, and threw 97 pitches, 60 for strikes.
"I just feel confident," said Burkett, who improved to 5-4 and lowered his earned run average to 2.59, the league's fourth-best. "I was pretty much cruising until the eighth, when Brian Jordan made two huge plays."
Said Expos catcher Michael Barrett of Burkett, "I couldn't believe how well he pitched. Every pitch was sound. He got us to hit pitches he wanted us to hit."
Irabu had retired nine of 11 hitters he'd faced when he ran into trouble in the fourth. Singles by Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan got the Braves on the board, before the Japanese right-hander trapped Chipper Jones off second base and struck out Javy Lopez.
Rico Brogna started the fifth with his second home run, his first since April 9, hitting a 1-and-2 delivery over the center-field wall to make it 2-0.
Irabu was excused after six, and the Expos bullpen worked three innings, allowing just Andruw Jones' double in the eighth and pinch-hitter Dave Martinez's two-out single in the ninth.
The Expos, who lost the opening game of this three-game set Tuesday, never found an answer to Burkett. In fact, they have never solved him north of the border.
Burkett remained perfect at the Big O; 6-0 with a 3.63 ERA in seven career games here, and 7-3 overall against the Expos.
"He's one of the top pitchers in the league right now, and he has been all year," said manager Bobby Cox, who was ejected in the second inning when he suggested to second base umpire Dan Iassogna, 'Why don't you go back to Double-A?' after a balk call on Burkett. "He's picked us up."
"I've never had a manager get that mad for me before," said Burkett, who pitched 3 1/3 no-hit innings before Guerrero singled in the fourth.
That was the last spot of trouble Burkett encountered until the eighth. He set down 11 straight before Blum led off the eighth with a double into the right-field corner. Andy Tracy followed with a line drive that Jordan tracked down moving toward the right-field line, then Barrett sent another liner screaming at Jordan, whose strong throw home forced Blum to scamper back to third.
"My thinking was, Burkett has pitched a great game, and I'd love to see him get a shutout," Jordan said. "I was going to forget about my shoulder and let it go. I didn't even look at Blum. It just happened to be on target for a change."
Burkett gave way to Mike Remlinger, who has snacked on first batters this season, limiting them to a .148 average. He retired pinch-hitter Mark Smith on a pop fly to second, then John Rocker rang up his 16th save, his 12th in a row, despite allowing Milton Bradley's single and a walk to Lee Stevens in the ninth.
"Defense and pitching will win you a bunch of games," Cox said.
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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