CINCINNATI -- A.J. Burnett returned to Pittsburgh for his final season because he wanted to write a triumphant ending to a 17-year career. He may have unwittingly written a legendary exit.
Placed on the disabled list following a Thursday night outing when the pain in his right elbow became "a little more than I expected, and more than I could tolerate," Burnett has an appointment with Pirates team doctors on Monday in Pittsburgh. He expects the diagnosis to be one of two things.
"It's either [the ulnar ligament]," said Burnett, who had the requisite Tommy John surgery for that in 2003, "or the flexor [tendon]. I'm prepared for both. Either way, I'm not going to be bothered by the result."
Burnett rules out surgery and vowed to not return "if I can't throw, or if I'm throwing what I was throwing the other night. I can't do it to these guys."
Burnett's most recent night of Major League glory becomes the stuff of legend. On July 11, he took the mound in PNC Park and started the Bucs to a 6-5 comeback win over the Cardinals with his first home run in a decade -- then packed his bags for the first All-Star Game of his career.
"I might start thinking about that if I thought it could be over," Burnett said softly. "But it's far from over."
Asked when he started feeling discomfort in his pitching elbow, Burnett said, "About 10 years ago."
"Everybody goes through stuff, especially pitchers," he went on. "But it hasn't been anything to worry about. I was doing my thing, going about my business -- until the other night."
Near the end of that 4 1/3-inning outing in which the Reds roughed him up for 10 hits and eight runs, Burnett got his fastball back to 94 mph and got his breaking pitch to buckle knees. He had started to pitch angry, paying no mind to possibly blowing out his arm.
"It was a matter of pretty much getting fed up with it. I just let it go, see what's left," he said. "I was, 'All right, if it goes, it goes. Let it fly.' Enough was enough at that point. I'm not coming out of a game unless I can't pick up the ball."
Burnett could not expect it to come to this point so quickly. He captured Pittsburgh's attention and sparked the city's imagination with his fanciful first half of the season, crafting a 2.11 ERA through his first 18 starts while passing pitching legends on the all-time strikeouts list: Sandy Koufax, Dennis Eckersley, Luis Tiant and Andy Pettitte, among others. His final strikeout on Thursday was No. 2,484, two behind another Hall of Famer Don Drysdale.
"It is difficult," Burnett said. "I'm prepared for both … if I just need some rest or something more. In my mind, surgery is not an option. I'd built up some pain tolerance. It comes and goes, part of doing this 16 years. You figure out what you can and can't do.
"It was just really bad on everything the other night. I never got loose, never got comfortable. We'll find out tomorrow, when they look at it. I don't expect it to go away, don't expect it to get better."