New catcher Martin and Burnett are a good match for the Pirates
Pirates catcher Russell Martin throws the ball back to pitcher and former teammate A.J. Burnett during a spring training bullpen session last month.
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Shortly after Russell Martin slid into his Pirates' catching gear for the first time, he saw a familiar face.
On the first day of workouts this spring, Martin and former New York Yankees teammate A.J. Burnett were paired in the first set of bullpen sessions. And though the face was familiar, the pitcher wasn't.
"I've never seen him throw like that before," Martin said through his catcher's mask.
And, when Burnett finished his 30 or so pitches, Martin had but one word for his old and new teammate: "Wow."
"I saw a guy who had better command," Martin said Friday. "He had better control of his body. He just looked in better shape than when I saw him in New York, not that he was in bad shape in New York. But he just looked like he was in great shape."
It was no mistake that these two players were grouped together to kick off spring training. They both represent significant -- and bold -- investments by the Pirates' front office. They are both de-facto team leaders, given their veteran status and past success.
Martin's teammate with the Yankees in 2011, Burnett was resurgent in Pittsburgh in 2012. After starting the season on the disabled list with a fractured orbital bone, he rebounded to lead the team in wins, starts and innings and led the starting rotation in ERA and strikeouts.
"The only thing A.J. has to be is just be A.J.," pitching coach Ray Searage said.
Martin said such authenticity is much easier to achieve with the Pirates than it was with the Yankees.
"One thing I've noticed is I feel like myself," Martin said. "I don't feel like I have to be anybody else. ... There's less attention, so guys feel a little bit freer. In New York, guys are kind of under a microscope, so guys are sometimes a little timid to show who they are. In here, you don't have that problem."
Barring injury, Burnett and Martin will be matched as the opening-day battery when the Chicago Cubs visit PNC Park.
"It's always good having a catcher that you've had success with," Burnett said. "It will be easier for us to hop back on the same page."
Burnett had a close relationship with Rod Barajas, the Pirates' starting catcher last season who also was Burnett's teammate when they played for the Toronto Blue Jays. Searage credits Barajas with a lot of Burnett's success last season.
"He was able to nail in his delivery that got lost maybe in a way," Searage said. "He really helped out A.J., kept him calm and didn't let him get too ticked off in certain situations."
In Martin, the Pirates have another catcher with close ties to the staff ace -- and one, they hope, can be another leader on a young team.
"He's already started," chimed backup catcher Michael McKenry.
Martin said Burnett has been a great example for how to be a veteran leader.
"All the guys here look up to A.J." he said. "He's on point with his work ethic and his intensity and all that stuff. It's good for the younger guys to have somebody to look up to. He's having a positive impact on this team. Me coming into that, it makes my job that much easier. He's the leader of the pitchers, and I just have to go out there and direct them and help them out as far as game-calling and the experience I have.
"But having a pitcher lead the way for other pitchers is big."
Martin's experience already has paid dividends for the Pirates. Searage said Martin was able to spot a couple tells in some of the team's young pitchers that could have tipped their pitches to opposing batters.
"Those are things that I've learned over the years," Martin said. "I wasn't good at looking before. I didn't even care, really. I just kept trying to catch the ball and make it look as good as possible."
Searage calls the duo a "really good fit."
"With Russ, he's got some good ideas," he said. "A.J. definitely has experience toeing the white line. Between both of them, we can cover both ends of the sequence."
Pirates fall to 2-7
The Pirates struggled again, losing 4-1 to the Detroit Tigers Saturday at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla., for their seventh loss in a row. Starting pitcher Jeanmar Gomez allowed four earned runs on three hits in three innings. He walked three and surrendered a monstrous home run to reigning American League MVP Miguel Cabrera. Gomez now has a 16.62 ERA this spring, albeit lower than the 27.00 he carried into the game.
Catcher Russell Martin (shoulder) played for the first time since Monday. He went 0 for 3 as the designated hitter. Manager Clint Hurdle said Martin was on track to start at catcher today against Houston, but Martin -- who had not yet talked to Hurdle -- said he does not think he will start. "If it was the season, I think I could go," he said. "But it doesn't make sense for me to rush it right now."
Jeff Karstens (shoulder) threw a 40-pitch side session. The next step in his rehabilitation is throwing live batting practice. ... Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who grew up near Lakeland, Fla., threw out the first pitch Saturday. He was greeted by scattered boos from the Pirates fans in the crowd, and a Terrible Towel being held by a woman behind home plate.
First Published March 3, 2013 12:00 am