Matchup with former understudy has ex-Pirate A.J. Burnett excited



Jeff Locke made the All-Star Game in 2013 after a scintillating first three months that included eight victories and a 2.15 ERA. After the All-Star break, when he was bothered by a back injury, his ERA rose to 6.12 and manager Clint Hurdle removed him from the rotation for the Pirates' first postseason appearance 21 years.

After starting the season in the minor leagues, Locke is back in the Pirates rotation and he has his opponent today to thank for that.

Philadelphia right-hander A.J. Burnett will face Locke and his former teammates this afternoon at PNC Park for the first time since signing a free-agent contract with the Phillies in the winter.

"A.J. did a lot for me," Locke said Saturday. "I think the biggest thing he helped me with was my confidence. He helped me realize you're here because you're good. You always have to believe you're the best out there even when everyone knows you're not.

"You always have to find something that keeps you going back out there. For me, I was always frustrated why I couldn't get through a certain inning or avoid the big inning. I wasn't as confident in my abilities as I needed to be. You just can't wing it and expect to do well here."

The two formed a strong friendship over Burnett's two seasons in a Pirates uniform. Burnett was the veteran imparting the wisdom he gained in his 16 seasons. Locke was the attentive pupil soaking in the knowledge.

It is commonplace in baseball's free-agency era for former teammates to compete against each other on a regular basis, but there is a different vibe around today for the starting pitchers. Both players acknowledged that.

"It's special for both of us," Burnett said. "I even think last year toward the end he may have mentioned it in the winter time, 'Hey, wouldn't this be cool?' Look what happened.

"It's one of those stories where it's special. It's something he's going to remember, it's something that I'm going to remember for a long time."

Locke regained a spot in the rotation this season after injuries forced Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano to the disabled list. He is making his seventh start of the season and enters with a 1-1 record and a 3.46 ERA. If not for three blown saves in games he started and pitched well, Locke would be going after his fifth win after getting called up from Class AAA Indianapolis June 8.

"He's always had it in him," Burnett said. "It's just a matter of him getting out there and doing it. You see it now. He told me [Friday], he's in the big leagues for life now.

"It shows that he's out having fun and he's believing in himself. That's the main thing with all the young guys, get that belief in them. He lost it a little bit, but you can see now. It's right back where it was.

Burnett is 5-7 with a 3.92 ERA for the Phillies, who are 37-50 entering today and last in the NL East.

The Pirates have climbed back into contention in the National League Central Division and the wild-card race after a slow start. There has been some speculation Burnett could be a target for the Pirates as the trade deadline approaches.

Burnett did not want to address that possibility, but at least one of his former teammates said Burnett's leadership is still paying dividends eight months after he left the franchise.

"The way he was with me was the way he was with everyone," Locke said. "I think we just were out more publicly and people saw that. But he took all these guys under his wing when he came here in 2012. He gave the club a lot of reason to believe. 'Why can't we win? Why can't we be successful? I don't come to work every day to lose.'

"People listened to him when he said stuff like that. We were a younger ballclub. He was by far the most experienced veteran anyone had ever played with."

Burnett's tenure with the Pirates did not end well. He gave up seven earned runs in his only playoff appearance in Game 1 of the NLDS against St. Louis and was bypassed for Cole in the decisive Game 5.

The Pirates still tried to sign him in the offseason, but they never came close to the $15 million the Phillies are paying him on a one-year contract.

Burnett is expecting a mixed bag from the fans when he takes the mound.

"Whether they're going to boo, they came out to boo, it's because they still care," he said. "They boo you to love you; they love you to boo you. It's a city that took me in. They have a right to boo. They have a right to cheer, too."

Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.


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