Pirates' Burnett hopes for encore performance
BRADENTON, Fla. — At times last season, it was almost as if Pirates right-hander A.J. Burnett was living out a Hollywood script.
“Every time that guy took the mound, before the first pitch, it was like a movie,” pitching coach Ray Searage said. “You know that one with Kevin Costner in it, ‘For Love of the Game'? He'd go on that mound, exhale and relax his shoulders. ... It was like he said, ‘I'm here. You're going to have to beat me.' ”
Searage referred to the 1999 film in which Costner starred as a 40-year-old pitcher who tosses a perfect game against the New York Yankees in the final start of his career. Burnett was 35 last spring when the Yankees traded him to the Pirates. He went on to collect 16 victories, the second-best total of his career, and post his lowest ERA (3.51) in seven years.
That's where the similarities end. Costner won the game and got the girl. For Burnett and the Pirates, the 2012 season didn't have a happy ending.
Burnett dropped six of his final seven decisions. After being atop the NL Central in mid-July, the Pirates faded and wound up with their 20th straight losing season.
“I wasn't pleased with the way it ended,” Burnett said. “I'm sure it seemed different from the outside, but we're not happy. We know we're a better team than what we were, and we plan to do something about it.”
For that to happen, Burnett must find a way to upstage his comeback performance from last year.
“I think I can do better,” he said. “Try to win more. Try to get us over that hump.”
Manager Clint Hurdle lauded Burnett's meticulous preparation, focus and competitive nature. Those traits fueled his dramatic turnaround last year.
During the previous three seasons with the Yankees, Burnett had allowed increasingly more hits and walks. In two of those years, he had the most wild pitches in the American League. In 2010, he hit 19 batters, the most in the AL.
With the Pirates, Burnett improved his control, racked up almost three times as many strikeouts as walks and averaged just 2.8 free passes per nine innings. His 1.241 WHIP ranked 26th in the National League and was his best mark since 2007.
Not everything was ideal, though. Base stealers were successful 95 percent of the time when Burnett was on the mound.
“We'll address controlling the running game a little bit better,” Hurdle said. “He's got more out there he wants to do.”
Although the regular season is still more than a month away, Hurdle already knows who'll get the honor of being the Opening Day starter.
“We haven't confirmed that yet, but we will — sooner than later, I'd imagine,” Hurdle said Wednesday with a sly grin.
Who else could it be but Burnett, the Pirates' most dominant pitcher last year and the soul of the clubhouse?
“Sometimes it's by words, sometimes it's by actions,” Searage said. “He's good for some of these guys to look at — someone who's been in the playoffs, who's had a good career but who's also had some ups and downs. A.J. means a lot to us.”