Burnett returns to Big Apple as an ace

Burnett returns to Big Apple as an ace

Burnett returns to Big Apple as an ace
NEW YORK -- A.J. Burnett makes a triumphant return to New York on Monday only in the sense of having triumphed in Houston on the eve of his return here with the Pirates.

As for the typically proverbial triumphant return, the one that would answer having been virtually run out of town ... Forget it. In his three seasons as a Yankee, Burnett apparently felt a lot better about New York than the other way around.

"Wherever I went in New York, I only heard positive things," Burnett reflected on those 2009-11 pinstripe days. "People coming up and talking positive to me. Not one person was ever negative.

"I got my share of flack. ... But every time I went out to eat or went somewhere with my family or my wife ... Nothing but positives coming from those people."

But Burnett can count on running into some of those other people in the visitors' clubhouse at Citi Field -- specifically, the media, which analyzed and questioned his performance in the first three years of the five-year, $82.5 million contract he signed as a free agent.

History comes in different wrappings.

In 2010, Burnett's 5.26 ERA was the highest ever for a Yankees pitcher making either 30 starts or logging 180 innings. That blemish covered a lot of ground.

Now he returns to the Big Apple as Pittsburgh's first 16-game winner in 21 seasons, with a fine 3.53 ERA to accompany his 16-8 record.

"I don't think he's got an 'I told you so' or 'I'll show you' bone in his body," said manager Clint Hurdle. "I don't. We've spoken volumes about the lessons learned [in New York], the challenges. It's part of the journey he had to go on and get through."

While Burnett was building his record and the current Yankees rotation was dealing with various injuries and slumps, New York reporters wondered where the team could find its own Burnett. Those were facetious musings, but still, point taken.

"None of that ever got back to me," Burnett said. "Not that it would have mattered. I'm happy here, man. This has all been more than what I expected, coming over here and being around these guys, in this environment."

Burnett himself enhanced that environment dramatically. He merged into the rotation late, delayed by that infamous bunting mishap in Spring Training, but he didn't waste any more time, or starts. After his first August outing, he was 14-3, receiving the first Cy Young Award attention of his career because he had the Pirates also riding high.

Soon thereafter the team receded, but neither Burnett's performance nor his leadership waned.

Just regard his most recent effort, Sunday's 8-1 win over the Astros. It was Burnett's first win in seven starts, but only because he received a total of seven runs of support in the previous six. In that start in Houston, Burnett went eight innings -- the first Pittsburgh starter to do that in 45 games, since Burnett himself went 8 2/3 in Cincinnati.

"He's still setting very good examples," Hurdle said. "It's good for the other pitchers to see a guy still capable of throwing 100-plus pitches and eight complete innings at this point of the season."

Burnett has been setting good examples since first setting foot in Bradenton, Fla., in late February. And every day, not just every fifth day. The riveting story of his remarkable influence on James McDonald may have lost its allure because of McDonald's second-half struggles, but Burnett is still the same good teammate looking out for everyone else sharing his uniform.

A Pittsburgh front office easily criticized for trading for or signing the wrong guys deserves props for meticulous due process prior to pulling the trigger on the deal for Burnett. Through talking with others and asking the right questions, general manager Neal Huntington got into the man's mind and concluded that both the Pittsburgh and Pirates environments would revitalize the veteran pitcher.

It came down to determining that Burnett wanted to be No. 1, both in a city and in a rotation, and would respond to that opportunity. Deals done.

"If you look at where he'd been, he was only one of the guys, probably somewhere in the middle," Hurdle said, referring to Burnett's rise as part of the Marlins crew that also included Josh Beckett, Ryan Dempster, Brad Penny and Carl Pavano, as well as Burnett's previous stops in Toronto alongside Roy Halladay and in the Yankees' cadre. "Here, based on his experience and resume, he's on top. He's comfortable in this environment, in his own skin, in a mentoring mode when appropriate."

OK, but how does all that translate to spot-on command of the fastball, to a deeper dive in the breaking pitch, to a bigger bite in the sinker? In any job, the more comfortable, secure and content you are, the better you perform. That simple.

"This has been a big turnaround year for me," Burnett said. "I definitely feel rejuvenated, just being around these guys in the clubhouse. The fun they have, it's definitely made me enjoy it a lot better.

"Last year, I think, I just drained myself, trying to do too much and putting too much pressure on myself to live up to the contract instead of just going out there and doing what I'm capable of doing. I've got one more start left to finish strong."

One more start won't be enough to match his career high of 18 wins, set with the Blue Jays in 2008 and in his first go-round with Rod Barajas as his catcher. Twenty wins, which would have made the ultimate comeback statement, was cropped out of the picture by the six straight winless starts prior to Sunday.

"My numbers aren't what they could be, but I can't complain about run support. I go up there to try to hit, and I can hardly foul one off," said Burnett, and that might be just as well, since the bunt he fouled off his face broke a bone in his eye socket and set him back nearly a month. "So I know it ain't easy. That's just how it works sometimes.

"Me and [Halladay], we were both going for 20 [in 2008] with four starts left. He got 14 runs and both wins, and I didn't get any. So it's out of your hands, man."

And that one start will not come in New York, where the other four-fifths of the rotation will face the Mets.

"So I'll get a vacation there. Four days without pitching," he said. "I would like to have thrown there; I like the park, and that's a good mound."

"There will probably be some noise, some attention thrown his way," Hurdle predicted. "I think he'll enjoy it, and he'll handle it professionally."

And if the subject of the Yankees' need for pitching stability comes up?

Burnett's lips curled and his eyes twinkled.

"I'm a Pirate now, so hang with 'em."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.