Burnett flourishing as elder statesman for Pirates

The evening had not gone well for A.J. Burnett.

Five miserable innings. Six Houston Astros runs on a dozen

sometimes confounding hits. The prospect of Burnett winning a 10th

straight start gone.

And yet, as the veteran Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander slumped

off the mound at PNC Park last July, head down in a fit of

self-disgust, his ears stumbled upon something that caught him off

guard.

Applause, and lots of it.

”I walk off, and I’m getting a standing ovation,” Burnett

said. ”I’m like, what is going on?”

Consider it Burnett’s ”Welcome to Pittsburgh” moment. The one

where the talented but sometimes erratic pitcher drank in the

warmth of a blue-collar city and an up-and-coming team searching

desperately for leadership.

New York it was not. Not by a long shot.

Burnett wears a wry smile while talking about his three seasons

with the Yankees from 2009-11. He won a World Series but could

never seem to find the precision that led him to 18 wins with

Toronto in 2008. For the Yankees’ $82.5 million, five-year

investment they received a 34-35 record, hardly horrific but

certainly not what the team or Burnett expected.

”I put more pressure on myself than anybody in the city did,”

Burnett said. ”If that’s called letting New York get to you, then

maybe it did. But I just know that I went out there and tried to do

too much. I tried to do more than I could do.”

When New York shipped him to Pittsburgh last February – with the

Yankees picking up the lion’s share of his annual $16.5 million

salary – Burnett didn’t put up a fight. He wasn’t escaping the Big

Apple so much as accepting a chance to start over. Pittsburgh

wasn’t simply a way station to a paycheck but an opportunity to

make a real impact.

”It wasn’t, oh man, I got traded to the Pirates from New

York,” he said. ”It was, oh, I’ve got a new start here. I’ve got

a young team that is going to be good. … I took it as a positive.

I didn’t take it as one big negative.”

Still, the move thrust him into an unfamiliar role. The guy with

the facial scruff, arms and legs sleeved in tattoos and a devilish

grin that belies his 36 years went from borderline bust to

clubhouse leader the second he walked through the door.

It felt, well, different.

”I never considered myself as that guy (until) I came here last

year,” Burnett said. ”But that was the impression I got before I

even got here and I didn’t have a choice in it and I accepted it

and ran with it.”

All the way to a 16-10 record on a team that flirted with

breaking the .500 barrier for the first time in two decades before

a brutal September collapse. Burnett regained his control – his 2.9

walks per nine innings were the second-lowest of his career – while

putting together the finest season by a Pittsburgh starter in 21

years.

Perhaps more important than his performance, though, may have

been the swagger and sensibility he brought to a staff filled with

guys trying to figure it out. He developed a close bond with

right-hander James McDonald, talking about everything from fishing

to fastballs to fatherhood. Burnett showed younger players how to

go about things the right way, sharing lessons learned from more

than a decade-plus trying to live up to the sky-high expectations

he set for himself.

”Guys feel like they can go to him for anything really and ask

him something,” McDonald said. ”It wasn’t a month, two months

(after he got here), it felt like he’d been here for (years).”

Burnett knows this is likely his last go-round in Pittsburgh. If

he manages to stay healthy and duplicate his 2012 numbers, he’ll be

priced out of Pittsburgh’s budget next year and there’s a chance

former No. 1 picks Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon could be ready

to stick in the majors. That’s out of Burnett’s hands. He’s more

concerned about making a lasting impact on a franchise that could

use a change of fortune.

Enduring the last six weeks of the season wasn’t fun, and

Burnett accepts his share of the blame. He lost seven of his last

11 starts, though Pittsburgh generated just six runs in those

defeats and was shut out four times.

”I know the last week of the season was miserable for

everybody,” Burnett said. ”It wasn’t because we weren’t doing

what we were supposed to do. It’s just that we knew we were a

better team.”

And he believes the Pirates – who went 79-83 a year ago – will

take the next step this season. If they do, it will be due in part

to a deeper rotation that includes veteran left-hander Wandy

Rodriguez and recently acquired Francisco Liriano. While Burnett

insists ”I think we have five No. 1s,” his teammates know that’s

not the case.

In the span of 12 months, Burnett has become the unmistakable

soul of a team eager to escape its ignominious past.

”Everybody looks up to him,” reliever Jared Hughes said.

”There’s not a guy that doesn’t. He leads by example. He’s a hard

worker. He’s mature.”

Well, most of the time. Burnett will sometimes run around the

clubhouse shooting a toy gun, and his t-shirt collection includes

an anagram that not-so politely suggests hitters take a seat. Yet

he’s also meticulous about his preparation, often turning his

sights to his next start the moment his current one ends.

He’s all but assured of taking the mound on opening day against

Philadelphia. It’s an honor, of course, but he’s more concerned

about the 30 starts that will follow. Those are the ones that will

help determine his season and in some ways his legacy.

”I’m not here for my numbers,” Burnett said. ”They’re not

going to get better. I might do better this year but my career

numbers aren’t going to get better after this year. I just know the

more games I can throw well, the more chance this team can play

meaningful baseball late in the season. That’s all that

matters.”

Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP