Cook: Burnett appreciation is equally mutual

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We could start with the no-hitter that A.J. Burnett took into the sixth inning Sunday at PNC Park or the fact that he gave his team's tired bullpen a much-needed lift by pitching into the eighth or -- the bottom line -- the sizzling Pirates' 3-2 win against the Kansas City Royals, their 12th win in 15 games.

But why not get to the best part of the day right at the start?

After Pirates manager Clint Hurdle went to the mound and took the ball from Burnett in the eighth, the crowd of 25,752 stood as one and roared as Burnett started the long, slow walk toward the dugout. It was a chilling moment on a hot, late-spring afternoon. So was the one that followed. Burnett took off his cap and held it high to the crowd. "You appreciate me? I appreciate you!"

"I've had a couple like that in my career," Burnett said afterward. "My last start in Toronto and a couple in Yankee Stadium. You never forget them. You have to respond when you get those. It was unbelievable."

It also was symbolic of Burnett's relationship with Pittsburgh. Pirates fans, though punished over the years with one losing season after another, 19 in all, are knowledgeable and realize they have a real, live, breathing ace on their team. Burnett, after pitching in the mecca of baseball in New York for the Yankees, has found happiness, in of all places, a town that many players long have considered to be purgatory. Remember how pitcher Edwin Jackson turned down $30 million over three years in the winter to sign for one year and $11 million with the Washington Nationals? Remember how out-of-work All-Star Roy Oswalt wouldn't even take the Pirates' call to measure his interest in pitching for them?

Well, here comes Burnett, who says he loves the place.

How cool is that?

"This has been a good environment for him," Hurdle said, "and he's added to it."

It's no wonder Pirates fans love Burnett. Although they were thinking no-hitter before the Royals' Alex Gordon stroked a one-out single to right field in the sixth, they hardly went home unhappy. Burnett gave them what they have come to expect from him at PNC Park. He's 4-0 with a 1.27 ERA in six home starts.

"The biggest thing for me is the consistency of the command," Hurdle said. "He has become very efficient with his pitches. His walks are way down."

Burnett also gets rave reviews for the tone he has set with his professionalism for the other pitchers, specifically James McDonald, who, not coincidentally, suddenly has the look of another staff ace. But Hurdle said Burnett's impact goes much deeper. It reaches every player on the team. How did Hurdle put it? "Guys feed off his energy." Yeah, that was it. They feed off his energy, his ability and -- don't underestimate this -- his attitude as far as being on the Pirates. "The other guys know we brought in a veteran player with a lot of experience that's not going anywhere," Hurdle said. "We didn't bring him in to try him out or to be here for a couple of months. He's not going anywhere."

That would be baseball's version of a death sentence for a lot of players who have passed through here over the years. But it doesn't feel that way with Burnett. Sure, he's smart enough not to knock the Pirates or the town. He has been saying the right things since shortly before spring training when the Pirates, after prolonged talks with the Yankees, sent two minor leaguers to the New York system for him and agreed to pick up $5 million of his salary this season and $8 million next season. But if he's not genuine, he's a terrific actor.

"It's been great here, everything I expected and more," Burnett said. "I came to a team that wanted me bad. That was important to me. I had heard that this was a great sports town, that people really love their sports here. You saw that [Sunday]. The fans supported me before I even threw my first pitch [of the season]. They're excited I'm here and I'm excited to be here."

But what about those 19 years of losing?

How does a guy join the Pirates and not ask himself, "What have I gotten myself into?"

"I saw what this team did last year," Burnett said. "You don't stay in first place that long [until July 26] by being lucky. You have to be good ...

"It's a great group of guys. It's fun to be a part of this team. I'm not here for my stats or my career. I'm here to have a positive impact on the team. That mentor stuff, I don't know about that. I'm going to lead by example. I'm just here to help."

Burnett is a big reason the Pirates are tied for first place with the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central Division after the Reds lost, 7-6, Sunday night to the Detroit Tigers. Six of his starts have resulted in one-run wins for the Pirates, who are 17-10 in one-run games. That's a significant stat. Good teams win one-run games, bad teams lose them.

Burnett also gives the Pirates and their fans confidence that he'll be able to stop the long losing streaks that killed the team last season in its 19-43 collapse on the way to the finish line. He has allowed two or fewer runs in eight of his 10 starts. That's valuable consistency.

"He's got a lot on his to-do list," Hurdle said.

Slowly, but surely, Burnett is checking off each item. What fun it is to watch him do it.

roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published June 11, 2012 12:00 AM


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