Commentary

A.J. Burnett strikes back

No longer the wild man, the Bucs' ace is throwing the National League a curve

Updated: August 1, 2012, 2:37 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Whenever A.J. Burnett feels like history is within reach, his mind drifts back to his previous no-hitter.

"I always think about it," he said of his May 12, 2001, no-hitter against the Padres. "I want to clean that one up. That was a wild one."

He's not being modest. Burnett walked nine in that game. It's a wonder he didn't send his cap to Ripley's Believe It or Not, rather than the Hall of Fame.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
AP Photo/Jim PrischingA.J. Burnett wasn't thrilled to see Adrian Cardenas spoil his shot at history.

In the Pirates' 5-0 win over the Cubs on Tuesday night, Burnett was four outs from a more respectable no-hitter, until pinch hitter Adrian Cardenas singled to right field. Burnett got upset at himself, and maybe a little at plate umpire Jeff Nelson, who called a 2-2 backdoor curveball a ball in the at-bat.

So with two on and two out -- Burnett already had hit Darwin Barney with a curveball, and Jeff Baker was pinch running for him -- Burnett had a meeting on the mound with manager Clint Hurdle.

"Skip has a good term for it," Burnett said. "He calls it, 'From no-no to uh-oh.' I didn't want to go to uh-oh. I over-reacted in the spur of the moment, but I was able to finish what I started."

Burnett struck out David DeJesus with a hook to end the inning. "It was the best curveball he threw all night," catcher Rod Barajas said.

Burnett threw a lot of good curveballs -- for nearly half his pitches. And it helped that his fastball was still in the low-90 mph range late in the game. Burnett credits Barajas for giving him confidence to throw the curve in any count. According to Hurdle, Burnett threw first-pitch strikes to 25 of the 31 batters he faced, en route to his first complete game since 2007.

"He has the ability now to really pitch inside to the left-hand hitters," Barajas said. "They can't sit on the soft pitches because we're pounding them in. Once they start looking in, we drop that curveball on them. He's figured out how to pitch and become a more well-rounded pitcher."

[+] EnlargeAJ Burnett
AP Photo/Jim PrischingBurnett gets a hug from Rod Barajas after nailing down his one-hitter.

That improved effectiveness with his curve has helped him generate the highest percentage of strikes thrown (64 percent) in any season of his career. And all those strikes mean he's also allowing his lowest walk rate since 2006.

Burnett finished with a one-hitter, striking out eight and walking two, while throwing just 108 pitches. His teammates ignored him as the no-hit buzz resonated throughout the crowd, and while the playoff-hunting Pirates were happy to get a win, they wanted Burnett to get recognized, too.

"It's like having a dream that's getting pretty good at the end and then you wake up," center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "That's kind of how I feel. It sucks."

The day started with trade deadline maneuvering. The Pirates dealt first baseman Casey McGehee to the Yankees, prompting Pirates to start chanting, "Shave it now!" to the goateed McGehee in the clubhouse before the game. The Pirates also added first baseman Gaby Sanchez from Miami (replacing McGehee) and outfielder Travis Snider from Toronto.

The Cubs haven't been no-hit since Sandy Koufax threw a perfect game in September 1965. Burnett admitted he started thinking about the no-hitter pretty early.

"About the third or fourth inning, I'm not going to lie," he said. "It's one of those things you want to do, you want to take pride in. But at the same time, a lot of luck has to go into it. A lot of luck. I had some great plays made behind me, at first, at shortstop, in the outfield. The bottom line is the W for us. I hope it gets us back on track and start winning again."

With the Reds on a tear, the second-place Pirates have to keep pace in the National League Central, especially with the randomness of the one-game wild-card play-in game. Burnett (13-3, 3.27 ERA) is now 6-1 after a Pirates loss. The Cubs spanked them 14-4 in the series opener.

If the Pirates are baseball's best team story, where does Burnett's reclamation rank as an individual story?

"You guys can decide that," Hurdle said. "I don't keep up on national stories. I know we're real happy having him. You look at the work that he's done at this point of time in the season. He's anchored the staff; he's been consistent from start until now."

Burnett has had only one bad start this year. On May 2, he gave up 12 runs in 2 2/3 innings in St. Louis.

"I'll go back to the game, kind of similar to the game last night, when St. Louis handed it to us and A.J. was on the mound for the one big black eye he's had this year," Hurdle said. "You watch the tape from that game, you see his face, you won't see a different face than you saw out there pitching tonight. He's a pro and he's taken it upon himself to really represent himself well, his team well and the uniform well this year."

Burnett never came close to living up to his $82.5 million deal with the Yankees. After a solid 2009 season in which he won Game 2 of the World Series, he declined significantly. He was traded to Pittsburgh in February and he credits the team for lifting him up. How about that? A Yankee needing to go to Pittsburgh to find happiness.

"A lot of my success this year has come because of the guys in this clubhouse," he said. "They accepted me from the get-go before I even took the mound as a Pirate. The fans back home are amazing, too; they go nuts. These guys in the locker room have lot to do with the way I was able to sit back and find A.J. Burnett."

Given that the Pirates haven't had a non-losing season since 1992, Pittsburgh hasn't been known as a happy-go-lucky clubhouse, but things have changed for the better this season for Burnett and the Buccos.

"He just needs an atmosphere where there wasn't so much negativity," McCutchen said. "That's what it was there. He came here where it's a little more calm, not as much media, and became himself, the A.J. of old."

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.