For two batters at the start of the Pirates game last night, he looked like the A.J. Burnett of Augusts past and present. Which is to say, not very good, not pennant-race worthy.
Burnett went to a 3-2 count in a nine-pitch at bat to leadoff hitter Will Venable before retiring him and then went 3-0 on Alexi Amarista.
The red flags were rising. The specter of his over-7.00 ERA during the past five Augusts stood front and center and, briefly, the thought was entertained as to whether the Pirates could truly count on Burnett in the hugely important days ahead.
Then the Burnett we've come to know emerged, regained his footing and handled the San Diego Padres with relative easy. Which is what good pitchers are expected to do against the light-hitting Padres.
It wasn't the masterpiece of Francisco Liriano the night before, but who's complaining about this line? -- seven innings, one run, four hits, one walk, seven strikeouts.
His pitch count, 112, was not the stuff of dreams, but other than the home run by Jedd Gyorko, only one runner reached third base. That was in the third when the Padres loaded the bases on an error, an infield single and a walk. That's when the Burnett we've come to know rose to the challenge. After getting a break from the home plate umpire to go ahead 1-2 on Yonder Alonso, he blew a fast ball past Alonso, still miffed from the bad call.
At 36, Burnett leads the National League in strikeouts per nine innings at 9.89, ahead of young stud fireballers like Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez and Stephen Strasburg. Remarkable!
Based on this performance and based on the kind of pitcher he has been since joining the Pirates last season in a ridiculously lopsided trade with the New York Yankees, the Pirates have a splendid No. 2 to Liriano's No. 1.
This is important because the goal of the Pirates is not to make the playoffs. The goal of the Pirates is to win the playoffs. Their best hope of that is their pitching strength because it sure isn't their hitting strength. Liriano and Burnett give them a formidable top of the rotation, something the Pirates have not had since the early 1990s.
The Burnett trade is worth recalling. The Yankees were desperate to unload Burnett's salary, which made him easily acquirable. It was the terms of that acquisition that point to another smart move by general manager Neal Huntington.
Not only did the Yankees agree to pay $20 million of the $33 remaining on Burnett's contract for 2012-13, but they got nothing approaching quality prospects in return. Diego Moreno is 27 and playing in Class AA after posting a 4.88 ERA in Class A earlier in the season. Exicardo Cayones, 21, is batting .241 with a.696 OPS in Class A.
A steal of thundering proportions.
And it will be all the more so if Burnett can pitch like this in October.
First Published August 21, 2013 12:30 AM