Column - Burnett can be successful this season in Pittsburgh
Published: Friday, April 27, 2012
Updated: Friday, April 27, 2012 02:04
Last Saturday, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ A.J. Burnett stymied the St. Louis Cardinals in his first start with his new team, dazzling the defending World Series champions with an impressive array of pitches and showing Pirates fans why he has the potential to be the ace of the staff.
Burnett earned the win behind seven shutout innings, while allowing two walks and only three hits over an extremely economical 75 pitches. He became the first Pittsburgh Pirate to throw at least seven scoreless innings with seven strikeouts in his first start for the club in more than 100 years, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Burnett’s right – it’s still April. Both he and the team have a lot of games left to play, but Pittsburgh fans, the organization and even Burnett’s teammates had to be at least encouraged by what they saw from the veteran right-hander on the mound Saturday.
Almost as impressive as the win itself was the way Burnett found his way out of a critical first-inning jam. Burnett started the game with four straight balls to Cardinal leadoff man Rafeal Furcal, immediately followed by a single and another walk that loaded the bases with no outs after just the first three hitters.
But he stayed mentally tough, buckling down and striking out the next two batters before eventually earning the third out with a little help from a leaping Clint Barmes, stranding the bases loaded.
It was a first inning that was somewhat of a microcosm of the 35-year-old veteran’s career.
Burnett has always been an exceptional talent with multiple "plus pitches," but throughout his career, he’s often had to battle, usually against himself, in order to capture consistent success.
As a rabid New York Yankees enthusiast, I became all too familiar with the internal struggles of the now ex-Yankee during the last three years, watching Burnett scuffle his way to career highs in ERA each of the last two years in pinstripes.
But I think that ultimately, for a number of reasons, Pirates fans will see a much more effective starter than the one who failed to meet the lofty contract expectations in the Bronx. The first simply being that he’s not pitching in the AL East anymore.
The prolific offenses that highlight this division would have any opposing pitcher losing sleep the night before a start. But with Burnett, the pressures of consistently winning within the division seemed to weigh on the right-hander over time, compounding the mental mistakes and lapses in execution.
But in 2012, he’ll have less pressure to win in the smaller Pittsburgh market and may have an easier time with most of the non-DH offenses in the National League. Even making a majority of his starts in the Pirates’ home PNC Park instead of Yankee Stadium, a notorious hitter’s park, will contribute to what I think will be a successful year for Burnett.
Even with these advantages, success won’t come automatically to anyone in Major League Baseball.
But again, Burnett is a veteran, and likely a hungry one at that, in a potential contract year. And even amid all the ups and downs in New York, I don’t think a single relevant sports mind ever questioned Burnett’s work ethic or dedication, and rightfully so. Despite all his struggles, Burnett never gave anything except his all and was just as visibly frustrated with himself as any fan could have been.
At the very least, the Pirates will have a solid veteran in Burnett, who can consume a lot of innings to protect their bullpen, as well as a great teammate who has already accepted a leadership role within the team by mentoring some of the younger pitchers.
A.J. Burnett has always been capable of pitching much better than his career statistics indicate. And even though he’s only made one start so far for the Pirates this year, I firmly believe that at this point in his career, Burnett has set himself up to have a better-than-average season.