BRADENTON, Fla. – The evening had not gone well for A.J. Burnett.
Five miserable innings. Six Houston Astros runs on a dozen sometimes confounding hits. The prospect of Burnett winning a 10th straight start gone.
And yet, as the veteran Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander slumped off the mound at PNC Park last July, head down in a fit of self-disgust, his ears stumbled upon something that caught him off guard.
Applause, and lots of it.
“I walk off, and I’m getting a standing ovation,” Burnett said. “I’m like, what is going on?”
Consider it Burnett’s “Welcome to Pittsburgh” moment. The one where the talented but sometimes erratic pitcher drank in the warmth of a blue-collar city and an up-and-coming team searching desperately for leadership.
New York it was not. Not by a long shot.
Burnett wears a wry smile while talking about his three seasons with the Yankees from 2009-11. He won a World Series but could never seem to find the precision that led him to 18 wins with Toronto in 2008. For the Yankees’ $82.5 million, five-year investment they received a 34-35 record, hardly horrific but certainly not what the team or Burnett expected.
“I put more pressure on myself than anybody in the city did,” Burnett said. “If that’s called letting New York get to you, then maybe it did. But I just know that I went out there and tried to do too much. I tried to do more than I could do.”
When New York shipped him to Pittsburgh last February – with the Yankees picking up the lion’s share of his annual $16.5 million salary – Burnett didn’t put up a fight. He wasn’t escaping the Big Apple so much as accepting a chance to start over. Pittsburgh wasn’t simply a way station to a paycheck but an opportunity to make a real impact.
“It wasn’t, oh man, I got traded to the Pirates from New York,” he said. “It was, oh, I’ve got a new start here. I’ve got a young team that is going to be good. … I took it as a positive. I didn’t take it as one big negative.”
Still, the move thrust him into an unfamiliar role. The guy with the facial scruff, arms and legs sleeved in tattoos and a devilish grin that belies his 36 years went from borderline bust to clubhouse leader the second he walked through the door.
It felt, well, different.
“I never considered myself as that guy (until) I came here last year,” Burnett said. “But that was the impression I got before I even got here and I didn’t have a choice in it and I accepted it and ran with it.”
All the way to a 16-10 record on a team that flirted with breaking the .500 barrier for the first time in two decades before a brutal September collapse. Burnett regained his control – his 2.9 walks per nine innings were the second-lowest of his career – while putting together the finest season by a Pittsburgh starter in 21 years.
Perhaps more important than his performance, though, may have been the swagger and sensibility he brought to a staff filled with guys trying to figure it out. He developed a close bond with right-hander James McDonald, talking about everything from fishing to fastballs to fatherhood. Burnett showed younger players how to go about things the right way, sharing lessons learned from more than a decade-plus trying to live up to the sky-high expectations he set for himself.
“Guys feel like they can go to him for anything really and ask him something,” McDonald said. “It wasn’t a month, two months (after he got here), it felt like he’d been here for (years).”
Burnett knows this is likely his last go-round in Pittsburgh. If he manages to stay healthy and duplicate his 2012 numbers, he’ll be priced out of Pittsburgh’s budget next year and there’s a chance former No. 1 picks Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon could be ready to stick in the majors. That’s out of Burnett’s hands. He’s more concerned about making a lasting impact on a franchise that could use a change of fortune.
Enduring the last six weeks of the season wasn’t fun, and Burnett accepts his share of the blame. He lost seven of his last 11 starts, though Pittsburgh generated just six runs in those defeats and was shut out four times.
“I know the last week of the season was miserable for everybody,” Burnett said. “It wasn’t because we weren’t doing what we were supposed to do. It’s just that we knew we were a better team.”
And he believes the Pirates – who went 79-83 a year ago – will take the next step this season. If they do, it will be due in part to a deeper rotation that includes veteran left-hander Wandy Rodriguez and recently acquired Francisco Liriano. While Burnett insists “I think we have five No. 1s,” his teammates know that’s not the case.
In the span of 12 months, Burnett has become the unmistakable soul of a team eager to escape its ignominious past.
“Everybody looks up to him,” reliever Jared Hughes said. “There’s not a guy that doesn’t. He leads by example. He’s a hard worker. He’s mature.”
Well, most of the time. Burnett will sometimes run around the clubhouse shooting a toy gun, and his t-shirt collection includes an anagram that not-so politely suggests hitters take a seat. Yet he’s also meticulous about his preparation, often turning his sights to his next start the moment his current one ends.
He’s all but assured of taking the mound on opening day against Philadelphia. It’s an honor, of course, but he’s more concerned about the 30 starts that will follow. Those are the ones that will help determine his season and in some ways his legacy.
“I’m not here for my numbers,” Burnett said. “They’re not going to get better. I might do better this year but my career numbers aren’t going to get better after this year. I just know the more games I can throw well, the more chance this team can play meaningful baseball late in the season. That’s all that matters.”