CLEARWATER, Fla. — It was pure happenstance that lined up the Pirates against A.J. Burnett in Philadelphia Phillies red, just five games into the start of the Grapefruit League season.
It was a serendipitous quirk of the schedule — random and unplanned — that reunited pitcher with former team, on a sunny, 70-degree Sunday afternoon.
Or … was it?
“I don’t know. I might’ve planned it that way?” Burnett said with a sly smile in the clubhouse at Bright House Field. “Nah, I didn’t. But it wasn’t weird, it was just facing another team, and it just happened to be those guys [Sunday]. It was good to see them. Definitely a tip of the cap. I always respect everyone and everything in this game, it doesn’t matter who you play against.”
Burnett took the mound just after 1 p.m., and before throwing the first pitch, tipped his cap toward the Pirates dugout.
Burnett faced 10 batters, and just four former teammates. Of those four he hit two of them with curveballs — Pedro Alvarez and Jordy Mercer.
Alvarez, up with two outs and one on, was grazed on his back (left) foot, then got an earful from his old teammate as he trotted to first.
“We always laugh because I hit a lot of guys in the back foot, but they swing. He always got a kick out of guys swinging and getting hit,” Burnett said. “So I said, ‘You should have swung, you could have been on the highlight reel! That was you. I need you to swing at that.’ It cost me another six, seven pitches. But, yeah, he knows how much I hate it, too, to get ahead and hit him in the back of the foot. So, just a little gesture.”
Alvarez said he refrained from jawing back at Burnett and took his base.
“It’s pretty much it — a little inside joke we have. He was just kind of messing with me,” Alvarez said. “It’s always good to see guys doing well. He looks good. [He was] such a good teammate and seeing him of course it’s weird first time seeing him, but you get used to that when you play this game.”
Mercer got hit in the upper back when he came to the plate in the second inning with two outs, also by a curveball. He said he already had traded texts with Burnett about it before the game had ended.
“It was good to see him. Good to see him out there pitching again,” Mercer said. “We all miss him here. I think Pittsburgh welcomed him and he embraced it and he was fun. He was fun to watch for two years, and was a good part of our team. We’re happy he’s over there. He’s in a good place and we wish him the best of luck.”
Burnett pitched two innings, giving up one hit and one earned run. He hit two batters and induced four groundouts.
There are high expectations for Burnett in Philadelphia. He will join Cliff Lee atop the Phillies rotation with Cole Hamels expected to start the season on the disabled list.
He recently signed for $16 million, a deal that could climb as high as $23.5 million over two years if he exercises his end of a mutual option.
He spent the winter contemplating retiring, but was called back at age 37, hopeful to build on the two years in Pittsburgh that rekindled his career.
Burnett went 26-21 with a 3.21 ERA, in 3931⁄3 innings over two years with the Pirates.
Sunday was his spring training debut.
“It felt good. Felt better in the first. That first time sitting down and getting back up, it makes you realize how old you are,” Burnett said. “It was good. I was looking forward to that for a while. I had thrown a couple of bullpens, but to get out there and in the flow of the game, have plays made behind you. To get all that to work for you, that’s where it starts.”
Pirates left-hander Yao-Hsun Yang drilled third baseman Cody Asche in the right hand with a pitch in the fifth inning. Asche dropped to the ground in pain and was removed from the game.
One batter later, Yang hit outfielder Zach Collier to load the bases then walked in a run. Yang is signed to a minor league contract.
Asche was diagnosed with a bruise after the game, avoiding a more serious injury.
Outfield prospect Gregory Polanco got the game’s first hit off Burnett, a one-out double to the warning track. He scored later in the inning.
Red Sox today
The Pirates play host to the Boston Red Sox today and will start left-hander Francisco Liriano against Jake Peavy. Edinson Volquez, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris and Jared Hughes also are scheduled to pitch.
Jenn Menendez: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1959 and Twitter @JennMenendez.