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Phillies pitcher Burnett relishes return to Pittsburgh

| Friday, July 4, 2014, 5:21 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Phillies pitcher A.J. Burnett talks with reporters in the dugout before a game against the Pirates Friday, July 4, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Phillies pitcher A.J. Burnett talks with Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke and pitching coaches Ray Searage (right) and Jim Benedict before their game Friday, July 4, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
The Pirates’ Jeff Locke hugs ex-Phillies pitcher A.J. Burnett before their game July 4 at PNC Park. Burnett signed a one-year, $8.5 million contract with the Pirates on Friday. “Anytime you have someone around who has that much experience, especially big-game experience, guys kind of cling to him. He brings out the best in everybody,” Locke said.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Philadelphia Phillies pitcher A.J. Burnett gets a hug from Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke before their game Friday, July 4, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Phillies pitcher A.J. Burnett talks with Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke before their game Friday, July 4, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Philadelphia Phillies pitcher A.J. Burnett (right) talks with Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke before their game Friday, July 4, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Philadelphia Phillies pitcher A.J. Burnett talks with Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke (left) and pitching coach Ray Searage (right) before their game Friday, July 4, 2014, at PNC Park.

A.J. Burnett had an early lunch Friday in Market Square before heading to PNC Park. He dined with a close friend — but not a teammate.

“It's good to catch up with him a little bit,” Pirates left-hander Jeff Locke said. “It's weird seeing him on the other side of things, and I think it's weird for him, too. But it's a job. You gotta do what you gotta do.”

After two productive seasons pitching for the Pirates, Burnett signed a one-year free-agent contract with the Phillies worth a reported $15 million plus incentives. Burnett said he wanted to be closer to his home in Maryland. Also, the Pirates offered a reported $12 million for one season.

Burnett, 37, anchored the Pirates' staff in 2012 and '13, going a combined 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA. He averaged almost 200 innings and 200 strikeouts, helping the club achieve its first winning record in 20 seasons and a wild-card berth.

The big right-hander was a strong locker room presence, especially with Locke and other pitchers, and had a somewhat skewed sense of humor that included a recurring bit with an exploding rosin bag.

“He helped me with a lot of things last year and the year before in September when I struggled a lot,” said Locke, who made the All-Star team in 2013 before tailing off during the second half. “It's very similar with the way he is with the guys (with the Phillies).

“For a lot of these guys, it's probably the biggest veteran presence they've ever played with. Not a whole lot of guys in Major League Baseball have been around as long as he's been around.”

Locke and Burnett will square off Sunday.

“I wouldn't want it any other way,” said Burnett, who revitalized his career in Pittsburgh after two poor seasons with the Yankees.

“I needed a fresh start,” he said inside the visitors' dugout Sunday, sporting a pair of red, white and blue shoes to commemorate the Fourth of July.

“I still give all my thanks to those guys in the locker room, from what they thought of me from Day 1 and even today. ... Just being accepted, coming here and being able to do what I do.”

He had warm words for the fans, too, many of whom did not react kindly to his leaving. He said he left with no hard feelings and does not second-guess the move, noting he gets to return home and be with his family three days a week. The drive is supposed to take an hour and a half or more. Burnett does it in about an hour.

“No tickets yet,” he said.

Battling a hernia since early in the season (it will require surgery), Burnett is 5-7 with a 3.92 ERA, leading a beleaguered Phillies staff in starts, innings and strikeouts.

“He's been a workhorse,” Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. “He gives us a chance to win.”

But the Phillies haven't capitalized much. Because the team seems headed nowhere, Burnett's name is mentioned in trade rumors. The Pirates have come up as a possibility.

“I don't have any thoughts on that,” he said. “That's where my mind is. I can't predict the future. I'm just gonna take it day by day.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com.

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