Though he has never called Wrigley Field home, the Pittsburgh Pirates' A.J. Burnett has always made himself comfortable at the Friendly Confines.
Set to come off the disabled list Sunday, Burnett tries to win a sixth consecutive start at Wrigley as the Pirates conclude a three-game series against the Chicago Cubs.
After missing the last month with a Grade 1 tear in his right calf, Burnett (4-6, 3.12 ERA), who was injured during routine running drills, is ready to make his much-anticipated return.
"His last bullpen, his timing and rhythm were really sharp," manager Clint Hurdle told MLB's official website. "We didn't see a need to have him throw 75 pitches in a rehab game. His experience, the adrenaline of a packed house, his success (at Wrigley) - all of it will combine to get him out there in a very competitive state."
In his last start before getting hurt, Burnett allowed two runs and four hits in a season-high 8 1-3 innings June 8, in a 6-2 road win over Chicago (37-48). The right-hander, who carried a shutout into the ninth before surrendering a two-run homer to Alfonso Soriano, improved to 5-0 with a 2.91 ERA in six career outings on the North Side.
"I go back a long way with Sori. ... I've gotten him a few times, he's gotten me," Burnett said of Soriano, who is 6 for 29 with 10 strikeouts in their matchups. "You come to Chicago and Wrigley Field, even as a Marlin I enjoyed coming here a long time ago. So it's fun to get out and play against these guys on their field in their stadium."
Burnett may need to be especially careful against Soriano, who hit a pair of two-run homers in Saturday's 4-1 win. The veteran outfielder has gone 12 for 34 (.353) with five homers and 13 RBIs in his last eight games.
"It's fun when we have a teammate swinging the bat real well," winning pitcher Edwin Jackson said. "It's a lot of fun in the dugout. It's positive energy and that's what this team needs."
With Scott Feldman no longer around, the Cubs will give the ball to Carlos Villanueva (2-4, 3.45). The right-hander opened the year in the rotation, and went 1-3 with a 3.93 ERA in eight starts. He has pitched out of the bullpen since May 22, going 1-1 with a 2.04 ERA in 16 appearances.
"If it's fresh and no stress out there, we'll just wing it," Sveum said of Villanueva, expected to throw around 60-70 pitches. "When he starts, he's going to have to have fastball command. Coming out of the bullpen, he can get through with his trickery, but when you start, you have to have fastball command and get some outs with your fastball."
Villanueva is 2-2 with a 2.98 ERA in 23 games - two starts - versus Pittsburgh (53-33). Russell Martin and Garrett Jones are a combined 9 for 16 with three homers against Villanueva, but Andrew McCutchen is 2 for 11.
Batting .373 with two homers and 10 RBIs over a 13-game stretch, McCutchen is hitting .411 with five homers, 17 RBIs, 27 runs and 10 stolen bases in his last 30 road games in the series.
McCutchen is one of four Pirates to make the NL All-Star team, joining Jason Grilli, Pedro Alvarez and Jeff Locke. Travis Wood will be the Cubs' only representative.
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker is uncertain to be available after leaving Saturday's game with discomfort on his right side. He's mired in a 4-for-26 slump.