Burnett, Martin key to Pirates' title hopes

A.J. Burnett and Russell Martin are experiencing good times in Pittsburgh after leaving the Yankees. Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

ST. LOUIS -- It's the kind of baseball weather in which every kid in the neighborhood should be out playing baseball: 76 degrees, sunny and late summer. Russell Martin and A.J. Burnett are working together on the field like two old pals playing a game of backyard catch. Burnett, the Pittsburgh Pirates veteran starting pitcher looks more relaxed than he has in years, and Martin, the starting catcher, seems at ease.

Yet, here the two are in St. Louis, 963 miles away from New York, where they played together with the New York Yankees in 2011, making a playoff run with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Who would have thought when they each left New York, Burnett after 2011 and Martin after 2012, that they would be reunited again in Pittsburgh, helping to lead the underdog Pirates to first place in the NL Central.

"It's been awesome. This team is, it is a team," Martin said. "The guys, they pull for each other. It's not about individual numbers. Guys want to win. It's refreshing."

Many of the players on the Pirates came up through the minor leagues together, and this forms a brotherhood, a big difference between the Yankees and Pirates, as Martin pointed out.

"I remember my early days in L.A. That's kind of how it was," Martin said. "A lot of guys came up together, and you know you go through some battles in the minor leagues and stuff and you kind of bond together. You feel that tightness in this clubhouse. The Yankees -- everybody gets along, it's professional, but it's not quite the same as this is."

Martin knows Burnett well from their time together in New York, and he says he sees a difference in him this season.

"I feel like he's in a better spot," Martin said. "I think he enjoys being the No. 1 guy and being the leader. With the Yankees, he was kind of somewhere in the middle of the pack. He cares, and I think he understands that he's carrying the role of being a leader here.

"Every time he goes out there, he competes. He competes all the way through, and, obviously, he's got the fans behind him."

In New York, Martin said the fans would boo Burnett if he walked a couple of guys in the first inning.

"It's kind of unfair," he added. "But he was one those guys that the media feasted on for some reason. But over here, he's just been electric."

Burnett has a 3.18 ERA, but in Thursday's 6-5, 12-inning loss to the Cardinals that cut Pittsburgh's division lead to two games, Burnett didn't have a great outing, pitching 4⅓ innings while allowing eight hits and five earned runs.

"His fastball was elevated. Some of the two-seams [fastballs] he was trying to throw away ran back over the plate," manager Clint Hurdle said. "The curveball seemed to lose its bite, its tilt. Everything seemed to be working back towards the back and up."

Hurdle says the recent rough few days -- the Pirates have lost five of their past six -- is part of what this team needs to learn.

"The great thing about what we are going through is the challenges and opportunities we are all getting moving forward through the season," he said. "I mean, this is playoff-atmosphere baseball. You are playing against a very good ballclub, so the opportunities -- the challenges that come with it -- are just going to sharpen us for what's in front of us."

It might sound like a nice way to put a tough loss in perspective, but this is what is different about the 2013 Pirates.

"We had a young core, a young group," shortstop Clint Barmes said about last season, when the Pirates collapsed in the final two months. "Guys maybe not sure of their talent or their ability or playing at this level. This year, the difference, in my opinion, is I don't feel any of that in this clubhouse. The guys that maybe got their first taste of the big leagues last year -- and coming back this year -- kind of know what they are getting into and understanding that they belong at this level. The confidence, especially the pitching, it's been fun to watch."

Martin said the team chemistry in Pittsburgh makes the bad days not as bad and the good ones even better. As for Martin and Burnett, the two former Yankees are expecting great things down the stretch.

"We're both competitors, and that's the key to the game," Martin said. "You have to compete with every pitch, you know, not worry about anything else that's going on."