PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Plans changed quickly for right-hander A.J. Burnett on Saturday. Originally slated to make his final rehab start with Double-A Altoona, the 35-year-old was reinstated from the 15-day disabled list and made his 2012 Pirates debut at PNC Park against the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2-0 shutout.
Burnett took the mound on a rainy, cold night in Pittsburgh to make his debut in a Pirates uniform since being acquired in a trade with the New York Yankees in February.
The first inning in Burnett’s debut was an intense one.
The 35-year-old gave up a four pitch walk to Rafael Furcal to start the frame. Matt Carpenter followed with a single into left field, and the third batter, Matt Holliday, drew the second walk on five pitches to load the bases with no outs.
Burnett, however, was able to leave the bases stranded. The veteran righty whiff’ed his next two batters in a row swinging. Burnett then got Yadier Molina to line out to short to end the inning as the crowd at PNC Park roared with excitment. Burnett threw a total of 24 pitches in the frame.
“Very interesting. A little nerve racking,” Burnett said. “A little anxious, too out there and that showed the first couple batters. You just keep yourself one pitch at a time. I was able to get out of that.”
“It just goes to show you, it don’t matter how old you are, for him this was Opening Day,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “Just to be told last night. We didn’t give him a lot of time to think about it. It was fun to watch him compete. I’m not sure if [Clint] Barmes jumped higher, A.J. jumped higher, or [pitching coach] Ray Searage jumped higher in that dugout for that catch in the first inning. It’s always good to see grown men act like kids.”
Burnett tossed 3.0 perfect innings, which included a seven-pitch second, with three strikeouts before giving up his first base hit to leadoff the fourth. The righty then got a double play induced by Shane Robinson to erase the baserunner. The only other hit Burnett allowed over his 7.0 inning outing was a base knock with one out in the sixth to Carpenter.
“It’s absolutely what we were looking for out of A.J. The reason he’s here,” Hurdle said. “We’re going to give him every opportunity to paint his own picture while he’s here…He competes. There’s been times when he has very good swing and miss stuff. Where he misses the barrel. Tonight it was almost like, okay. I painted myself in a corner it’s time to get out. A little help from Barmes, then after that, it was all A.J.”
“[He retired] 12 out of 14 and eight of the last 10. It got silly after a while. He just making pitch after pitch. These are Major League hitters. The most impressive thing for me tonight was he retired 17 hitters on three pitches or less. Our young guys that are watching him pitch tonight, there’s a case in point. There’s a guy that threw  pitches in the first inning and finished up with  on the night through seven innings.”
Overall, Burnett tossed 7.0 scoreless innings with three hits. He walked two and struck out seven . His seven whiff’s are the most by a Pirates starter this season. Burnett threw 76 pitches, 53 for strikes.
“I felt good,” Burnett said. “I could have gone more, but you know, skip has his reasons. I haven’t thrown a lot of pitches thanks to those minor league kids that I was facing. I felt good. It was good to get back out there. It was a lot of fun.”
“It was fun to play defense because it was quick,” third baseman Pedro Alvarez said. “He never put us on our heels. After that first inning, he just bounced back. You could just feel the energy off him. He’s such a leader on this team. He hasn’t even been here that long and since day one he’s stepped up as a leader. I think it showed today.”
Having started the season on the disabled list rehabbing from surgery on his right orbital bone, which he fractured during a bunting drill at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., on February 29.
Burnett attempted to bunt against right-handed starter Jake Westbrook in the 3rd inning. With Rod Barajas on first, Burnett squared up three times, each time the crowd breathing a sigh of relief. The righty instead drew a four pitch walk.
“I didn’t know what the noise was about until I figured it out a couple pitches later. I think that’s awesome. It shows you how much they pay attention in Pittsburgh. I thought it was great,” Burnett said of the crowd yelling no when Burnett would square up. “I thought they were telling Rod to go. Then I was like, ‘oh, okay. I get it.’ I was nervous as I was bunting out there, then they threw that in. It was great.”
The Pirates, who entered the game with the National League-worst .201 team batting average, struck first against the Cardinals.
Andrew McCutchen led off the fourth frame with a single into center field. He advanced to third on the grounder hit up the left side by Neil Walker. Pedro Alvarez lined a RBI single, that reflected off the glove of third baseman David Freese, for an infield single to plate the first run of the game.
“Anytime I can produce for the team in any way possible it feels good. That’s my intention every time I’m up there,” Alvarez said. “I just got to keep going out there and keep grinding at-bats. Just take full advantage of every opportunity I get. That’s all I ask for. Most importantly, as a team, we just need to keep battling like we have the last couple games. We’re pitching well, playing good defense, and trying to get those timely hits.”
For the second straight time through the heart of the lineup, the Pirates were able to plate another run off Westbrook.
McCutchen took a 2-1 sinker from Westbrook off the Roberto Clemente wall in right for a double with one out in the sixth. Walker followed by reaching base for the second straight inning with a four-pitch walk. For his second straight at-bat, Alvarez stepped to the plate with a runner on third base. He came through again with a base hit to plate the second run of the game. So far this season, of Alvarez’s four hits, all of them have came with an RBI. His other two, were solo-home runs.
“The first one, we’ll take it. Just because he’s up there battling,” Hurdle said. “He puts the bat on the ball. A swinging bats a dangerous bat. We needed some breathing room. He came through with a sharp single up the right side. Absolutely good to see him involved on the offense.”
The Pirates bullpen continued their solid run for the club. They entered game action with a 2.18 ‘pen ERA, which ranked third-best in the National League.
Righty Juan Cruz took the mound in the eighth inning and gave up back-to-back base hits. After allowing a sac bunt to advance the runners, Hurdle went to lefty Tony Watson from the ‘pen, who struck out his lone batter. Jason Grilli struck out Matt Holliday to keep the shutout intact.
Joel Hanrahan picked up his second save of the young season with a scoreless inning of relief with a strikeout in the 9th in the 2-0 win. Hanrahan made his first appearance with Pittsburgh since being sidelined since Sunday with tightness in his right hamstring.
“We’re a family here,” Burnett said. “Petey came through two outs, big night for him. I can’t say enough for the bullpen once again. They’re doing their jobs. It was a good W.”
- Relief — Juan Cruz: 0.1H, 2H; Tony Watson: 0.1 IP, K; Jason Grilli 0.1 IP, K; Joel Hanrahan: IP, 2BB, 2K
- Cruz has not surrendered a run in his first seven appearances (6.1 innings) this season.
- With the 2-0 win, the Pirates improve to 6-8 on the season.
- In their first 14 games, the Pirates have yet to score or allow more than five runs in any contest. The 1965 Pirates hold the National League record for beginning a season with 16 straight games in which they did not score or allow more than five runs.
- Third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who entered game action with a 0.77 average, went 2-for-4 with two RBI raising his average to .118.
- All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen went 2-for-4 with two runs and is now batting .377 on the season.