Big League Stew

A.J. Burnett finally ‘finds’ himself with Pirates

David Brown
Big League Stew

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CHICAGO — His bid at history broken up, A.J. Burnett shouted something and dismissively waved his right hand in the general direction of umpire Jeff Nelson. Nelson said the previous pitch — a sweeping curveball — had missed the plate for ball three. Burnett thought it should have been strike three for the last out of the inning. He thought he should have been sitting in the Pittsburgh Pirates dugout, thinking about getting three outs in the ninth inning to add another slice of history to his career resume.

Instead, Chicago Cubs rookie Adrian Cardenas was standing on first base, having hit a single to spoil what could have been the second no-hitter of Burnett's career at Wrigley Field on Tuesday night.

Replays showed the ball was outside. Burnett apologized afterward, after settling for a one-hitter and a 5-0 victory for the resurgent Pirates.

"I got caught up in it," Burnett said. "I wish I didn't act the way I acted. I thought he had called [a pitch] earlier in the game that was close to that spot and you get caught up in that. And I wanted to throw one."

In the worst way, too. Burnett's first no-hitter, logged 11 seasons ago, is frequently regarded as the homeliest no-no in history. Nine walks. A hit batter. A wild pitch. Maybe 10 curveballs, the best pitch in his arsenal, thrown all game long. No hits? No doubt. But a meek one. And very A.J. Burnett.

"I always think about it," Burnett said. "I wanted to clean that one up. That was a wild one."

That night in May 2001, pitching for the Marlins at San Diego, is a microcosm of Burnett's career. Having a no-hitter on your pedigree should be cause for pride, but instead it's just a blinking neon sign that represents how uneven his performances have been through the years.

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• The wild no-hitter. Leading the league in shutouts — and wild pitches — in '02. Missing most of the Marlins' 2003 World Series season because of Tommy John surgery.

• Signing a big free-agent contract with the Toronto Blue Jays, then making only 21 starts in 2006. Leading the league in strikeouts with the Jays in 2008, then signing an even bigger free-agent contract with the New York Yankees in 2009.

• Leading the league in walks and wild pitches in '09, then winning a key World Series start against the Phillies. Posting the worst ERA of his career and leading the league in hit by pitches in 2010, and being left off the postseason roster in the first round. And losing his start against the Rangers in the ALCS.

• Posting another 5-plus ERA and leading the league in wild pitches in 2011, but then winning his first-round start against the Tigers.

Now there's this season's performance with the Pirates. It has been Burnett's steadiest season in years. His walk rate has a chance to be the lowest of his career. He's hit two batters all season. He's thrown three wild pitches, after throwing 25 a year ago. (Burnett thanks Pittsburgh's catchers, notably Rod Barajas, for this.) He's keeping batters off base, period. This could be the best season he's ever pitched. And the one-hitter might have been the best game of his career considering he recorded a career-high game score of 91.

"It was, probably," Burnett said. "It was close, it was close. I had a lot of things going tonight, control-wise. Only two walks."

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There were a couple of moments in the eighth — losing control with Nelson, along with the errant curveball that hit Darwin Barney in the helmet — when Burnett looked like Bad A.J. (Side note: Nelson also umpired in Burnett's no-hitter. Second base.)

"[Manager Clint Hurdle] calls it 'No-no to uh-oh,' and I didn't want to 'Uh-oh.' I was upset, but I'm able to regroup and make a pitch," Burnett said. "I've been there."

Seemingly everyone in the Bucs clubhouse, from Burnett to Barajas to Hurdle, said they were thinking "no-hitter" from the second or third inning. Hurdle said it was one of the best-pitched games he's seen.

"Ever," Hurdle said. "I thought he had a shot. He was just so efficient. He had pinpoint command. He threw 25 out of 31 first-pitch strikes."

A.J. Burnett had pinpoint command. But where has it been all of his life?

Barajas said Burnett, at age 35, has a better understanding of how to pitch inside to left-handed batters, who used to kill him.

"They can't sit on the soft pitches because we're pounding them in," Barajas said. "And then once they start looking in, we drop the curveball on them. He's figured out how to pitch."

The no-hit stuff has always been there. Now, it's just easier to find.

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"It's happened quite a bit," Barajas said. "You get past the third or fourth inning, you think: 'This might be the day, this might be the day.' Today was definitely one of those days. He was locating his fastball. His curveball was nasty. When he's got both of those going, you never know what can happen.

"David DeJesus, after Cardenas' hit said, 'That curveball is ridiculous.'"

It's almost like the one-hitter can be a microcosm of Burnett's turnaround season in Pittsburgh.

"He's anchored the staff," Hurdle said. "He's a pro and he's taking it upon himself to represent himself well, his team well and the uniform well this year."

Pittsburgh is going for its first winning record and playoff appearance in 20 years. That's what has Burnett excited.

"A lot of pride," Burnett said. "A lot of my success this year has come because of the guys in the clubhouse. They have accepted me from the get-go, before I even took the mound as a Pirate. The fans back home are amazing, too. They go nuts. But the guys in this locker room have a lot to do with the way I've been able to sit back and find A.J. Burnett."

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