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Joe Starkey

Starkey: Burnett writing incredible final chapter

| Tuesday, July 7, 2015, 12:03 a.m.
Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett acknowledges the crowd as he leaves the game during the eighth inning against the Padres on Monday, July 6, 2015, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett acknowledges the crowd as he leaves the game during the eighth inning against the Padres on Monday, July 6, 2015, at PNC Park.
Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett delivers during the first inning against the Padres on Monday, July 6, 2015, at PNC Park. Burnett was chosen to the NL All-Star pitching staff Monday.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett delivers during the first inning against the Padres on Monday, July 6, 2015, at PNC Park. Burnett was chosen to the NL All-Star pitching staff Monday.
Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett delivers during the first inning against the Padres Monday, July 6, 2015, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett delivers during the first inning against the Padres Monday, July 6, 2015, at PNC Park.

“I guess I'm a Yinzer,” A.J. Burnett was saying late Monday after the Pirates' pulsating, 2-1 victory over the San Diego Padres. “That's what they say. I'm cool with that.”

This was the best night yet on Burnett's “Fare Thee Well” Tour.

In fact, it was one of the best nights of his 16-year career.

It began with his teammates “hooting and hollering,” in the words of manager Clint Hurdle, when they were informed before the game that Burnett would be making the first All-Star appearance of his career, July 14 in Cincinnati.

“I was waiting for ‘Just kidding,' ” Burnett said.

It ended when Pedro Alvarez singled home the winning run in the bottom of the ninth, an inning after Burnett walked off the field to a thunderous roar from the crowd of 23,182.

That left the Pirates with a 48-34 record and Burnett — even though he didn't get the win — with a spiffy 1.99 ERA. Not bad for a 38-year-old who lost 18 games last year.

It isn't supposed to work this way, you know.

Fairy tale endings are for Disney movies, not aging athletes. But there are exceptions. Jerome Bettis was one. He starred in one of sports' all-time great final acts.

Burnett seems intent on doing the same. He will be the oldest player on either All-Star roster. He could have made the game two years ago, but it seems fitting he'll finally get there in his apparent final year.

”I'll tell you one thing, there's no other colors I'd rather wear there,” Burnett said. “Because this is my home, man. I want to represent these guys and this locker room and this city and this organization for my first time in an All-Star Game.”

He also wants to do it for his sons, A.J. Jr. and Ashton, who were buzzing around their dad's locker long after the game had ended, each wearing No. 34 black T-shirts.

Andrew McCutchen, who scored the winning run, said if he could have chosen only one teammate to go to the All-Star Game, it would have been Burnett.

It was vintage Burnett on Monday, even if his fabled curveball didn't arrive until the later innings. If he wasn't fist-pumping after McCutchen's leaping catch at the wall, he was freezing Justin Upton on a called third strike, splintering Yonder Alonso's bat, picking Melvin Upton off first in the eighth inning, inducing yet another harmless groundball or sprinting down the first-base line to try to beat out a grounder.

Burnett gave his banged-up team 7 23 good innings, surrendering just five hits and a run on 111 pitches.

It should have been eight innings, but home-plate umpire Paul Emmel whiffed on an obvious whiff, ruling that Derek Norris got a piece of a pitch he actually missed by about a foot.

Burnett had already let loose with a jubilant fist pump by then.

“Wasted fist pump, man,” he said. “Guys were saying that's probably the best one they've ever seen. But that happens. We're all human.”

Credit Pirates management for their open-mindedness regarding Burnett. Too much was made of his unhappiness in the wake of Gerrit Cole starting Game 5 of the Cardinals playoff series two years ago, but Burnett still did some smoothing over with Hurdle upon his return.

As Hurdle put it shortly after Burnett signed, “He told me all the right reasons he wanted to be a Pirate again, and that's good enough for me.”

Now Cole and Burnett will be going to Cincinnati together, marking the first time since 1960 that the Pirates will send two starting pitchers to the Midsummer Classic.

That was a pretty good year.

This is shaping up as one, too, in the amazing career of A.J. Burnett.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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