Charged battery: Burnett, Martin bring a winning pedigree to Pirates
A.J. Burnett has been here before, in this setting, under this spotlight.
The last time was with the New York Yankees, pitching against the Detroit Tigers in Game 4 of the 2011 American League Division Series. It was his seventh postseason start, including two in the World Series in 2009, when the Yankees beat the Philadelphia Phillies.
He cherishes his October experiences but admitted Wednesday that getting to the National League Division Series with the Pirates is distinctive.
“It's special to get to the playoffs,” said Burnett, who will start Game 1 against the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday. “You don't get there a lot. This group of guys in there, it's a little different. It's a little closer unit. From when I came over here last year to where we are now, it's going to be an honor to take the mound for these guys in Game 1.”
The Pirates acquired Burnett, 36, in February 2012. He brought with him an arm that instantly made him the team's ace and also a mentality that comes with years of playing on great teams.
Roughly 10 months later, Burnett was joined by his former Yankees teammate Russell Martin in another move that not only represented a much-needed upgrade at the position but also the addition of another player accustomed to success.
Now, success belongs to the Pirates. In a city that for years longed for a team that could play .500 baseball, the Pirates have delivered much more. An electrifying wild-card win over the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday led to a champagne celebration and Game 1 of the NLDS, in which Burnett will start and Martin will catch.
Martin, 30, had an idea this could happen. When he signed with the Pirates as a free agent, he said the team wasn't as far from winning as people thought and grinned when reminded of the quote before Tuesday's game.
“It's been a fun ride so far,” Martin said. “Throughout the year we knew we had talent — we knew we were good — but the difference now is we show up to the ballpark expecting to win, where as earlier in the year we weren't really convinced of that. We weren't sure. As the season went along, we gained confidence, and we understood the type of team we had.”
When the Pirates traded for Burnett, several of the team's more low-key core players, including Neil Walker, Garrett Jones and Andrew McCutchen, wondered how he was going to fit in. In addition to his fastball and curveball, the tattooed, pierced right-hander was known for being a hothead.
“He actually had a bad rap,” McCutchen said. “I didn't know what to expect when he came here, and I didn't know anybody who'd played with him. But once I met him in Bradenton and got to know him a little bit during spring training, I was like, oh, he's a great guy.
“He's a lot different than I expected. He's definitely a competitor on the field, but off the field, he's just a standard guy. Easy to get along with, keeps you laughing, and you just know he has your back in anything. It's good to have someone like that.”
Martin also came to the Pirates with a reputation, but he was known more for athleticism not often seen in a catcher and the thoroughness of his game preparation.
He hit only .226 this season, but Martin's defense has been remarkable, from his ability to corral balls in the dirt to controlling the running game. His game-calling, preparation and understanding of opposing hitters and the pitching staff have been exceptional.
“He knows what he wants to do, but he has a better understanding of his pitchers than he does the hitters,” right-hander Gerrit Cole said. “He understands what stuff works and what doesn't, and he has a plan in his mind of what he wants to do, whether it's based on what the hitters typically do or what we typically do. He's got that all figured out way before it happens.
“He's so focused out there, it just shows all the details that he takes care of and all the little things that don't show up in the box score. We're lucky to have him, that's for sure.”
Burnett enters Tuesday's game with a 10-11 record, but his past two starts have been among his strongest all year. Against the Reds — first Sept. 21 and then Sept. 27, when the Pirates were fighting for playoff position, Burnett allowed just three runs and five hits in 15 combined innings. Both games were victories.
Martin homered twice in the 6-2 victory over the Reds in the NL wild-card game. He became the second Pirates player ever to hit two home runs in a postseason game, joining Bob Robertson, who homered three times in Game 2 of the 1971 NLCS. His nine total bases tied him with Willie Stargell for second most in a postseason game in Pirates history. Martin caught Burnett the last time the right-hander was on the mound in the postseason and said that being back on the field with him again in October is going to be “super-special.”
“A.J.'s a top-notch competitor,” Martin said. “He doesn't shy away from anything. He enjoys the competition and the October energy. I mean, I can't wait to be behind the plate when he's pitching. He's just fun to catch.”