Burnett's switch in preparations pays off

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- About four years ago, A.J. Burnett altered his preparation for the season. He had entered his early 30s and wanted to protect his body.

The changes have coincided with several consecutive seasons of consistent durability.

"It's a long year," said Burnett, who will be the Pirates' opening-day starter. "Spring starts up earlier every year. I can't imagine throwing seven [bull]pens before I showed up. I'd be done right now."

Burnett, 36, no longer throws bullpen sessions before spring training in an effort to preserve his arm. He has pitched at least 207 innings in each of the past four years, following a 2211/3-inning season in 2008. Last year, at 35, he reached the 200-inning mark despite missing time in March and April after fracturing his orbital bone in spring training.

Burnett took the mound for his first Grapefruit League action Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Rays. He allowed four runs, one earned, in two innings, striking out one and allowing three hits.

"I thought the fastball velocity was in a good place," manager Clint Hurdle said. "I thought he got the ball in, both to right-handers and left-handers on occasion."

Burnett pitched without his curveball, instead throwing only fastballs and changeups.

"All these guys are here and they've been throwing four-plus pitches for a month now," Burnett said. "I'm not that guy. I'll mix mine in sooner or later and get it going."

He brings the curveball along slowly. He throws them in bullpen sessions with increasing regularity, introducing them in games once he is pleased with them.

"My next start still might be fastball-changeup," Burnett said. "I don't know. It depends on how my hook feels in the bullpen. The good thing is, it's normally there when I need it."

Though Burnett worked with a half-full quiver of pitches, he employed other tricks. Burnett picked Ben Zobrist off first base in the first inning.

"It's a big focus on our pitching staff this year," Burnett said. "You can't put all the blame on the catcher. It just showed you that [if] you put the time in and take it seriously, it can help you out."

Despite the fact that the Pirates are playing mostly American League teams in spring training, their emphasis on attacking base-runners can translate to the regular season.

"There's 20 scouts in the stands every time you play," Hurdle said. "Anytime a play's put on, relays, all that stuff, that information gets shared."

Union visit

Representatives from the Major League Baseball Players Association were scheduled to visit the Pirates this morning, allowing union officials to brief players and answer questions.

Neil Walker, the Pirates' union representative, said he had participated in conference calls this offseason discussing the future of testing and punishments for performance-enhancing drugs, a topic that may arise this morning.

"Everyone is aware," Walker said. "That's number one. The training room has the list of things you're allowed to take and not allowed to take."

A January report from the Miami New Times detailing alleged connections between major league players and Biogenesis, a Miami-area clinic, as well as positives drug tests from high-profile players such as Ryan Braun and Melky Cabrera, has spurred more talk about performance-enhancing drug use in baseball. New York Mets third baseman David Wright, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday and Colorado Rockies outfielder Michael Cuddyer recently have spoken publicly about tougher penalties.

For the first time, players will be subjected to random in-season blood tests for human growth hormone. Players also will have baseline testosterone levels established ---- like the baseline readings on an ImPACT concussion test -- to make it easier to catch synthetic testosterone use.

Sloppy game

The Pirates committed three errors in the first two innings and four total Wednesday in an 8-2 loss against the Rays at McKechnie Field.

"Anytime you play a game, you don't want to make fielding miscues," Hurdle said. "Three extra outs in the first two innings kind of complicated things for us."

Jose Tabata went 2 for 2 with two doubles.

Gerrit Cole pitched two innings and allowed one run on one hit. He walked a batter and struck out one. Wandy Rodriguez allowed one run in two innings. Hurdle said Rodriguez will get one more start before pitching for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic.

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Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published February 28, 2013 5:00 AM


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