It can be hard to find many “firsts” for a player that is entering his 15th season in the big leagues, but when A.J. Burnett takes the mound on Monday afternoon against the Chicago Cubs he’ll be having one of those moments — his first career Opening Day start.
Burnett, now in his second season in Pittsburgh, has spent time with the Marlins, Blue Jays and Yankees in addition to the Pirates but has never been handed the ball to start a season since his debut in 1999. Last season he appeared to be one of the favorites to start on Opening Day but a fractured orbital bone on a bunt attempt in Spring Training put an end to that.
Burnett spoke to the media Sunday afternoon at PNC Park prior to the team’s public workout and said that he has “no clue” what his emotions will be like when he’s on the mound against the Cubs.
“I imagine they’re going to be overwhelming,” he said. “I’m very excited to do this and be a part of Opening Day for the first time but I’m not going to know what’s up until I come out of the dugout and start warming up. I’m sure it’s going to be amazing. It’s been an amazing year for me here so I can only imagine what tomorrow is going to be like.”
Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle also spoke to the media on Sunday and said he thinks Burnett is excited to get his first Opening Day start but at the same time knows it is just one of 162 games.
“He’s our best pitcher. It’s Opening Day, it’ll be exciting,” Hurdle said. “It’s his first Opening Day start and he’s excited about that. I do think that a lot goes into Opening Day. At the end of the day it’s kind of good that it’s out of the way and you can move on to the volume of the season even though you’re cutting it down one game at a time. I’m happy for him because he’s getting the opportunity to do it for the first time and getting the opportunity to do it here. This is a city that’s embraced him and he’s embraced Pittsburgh.”
Burnett said he’s going to try to treat the game like it’s any other game but he won’t know how he’ll react until he’s on the mound.
“The thoughts that are going to run through me tonight then I’ll be straight for tomorrow,” he said. “When I go out to warm up tomorrow that’s when the goosebumps will come.”
Hurdle was also asked about the progression of Starling Marte as a leadoff hitter.
“There’s been growth. Selectivity at the plate has improved. Does that mean he’ s finished with that? No it doesn’t,” Hurdle said. “We’ve still got work to do there. There’s some areas he can still fall traps to. The ability to strike a fastball well with power — it still showed up. We saw it on breaking ball yesterday. I think he’s adapted to some soft stuff as well in the zone. (He has a) strong throwing arm, on the bases he’s been aggressive. He had a very solid spring but everyday you go out there’s things you want to remind him of and encourage him to do. He’s playing beside one of the hardest workers in baseball and definitely the hardest worker on our team so the bar’s already been set there from Andrew (McCutchen’s) perspective with Starling watching him every day.”
Marte will hit leadoff against the Cubs in the season opener. Here is the rest of the Opening Day lineup.
1. Starling Marte, LF
2. Garrett Jones, RF
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
4. Pedro Alvarez, 3B
5. Gaby Sanchez, 1B
6. Neil Walker, 2B
7. Russell Martin, C
8. Clint Barmes, SS
9. A.J. Burnett, P
When Burnett takes the mound it will be a familiar face looking back at him from behind home plate with Russell Martin making his Pittsburgh debut. Martin and Burnett were previously teammates with the Yankees
“Our chemistry is great,” Burnett said. “It’s great to have him back. It’s great to throw to him. he’s got a winning desire about him and that’s going to be big in our clubhouse. He wants to win for Pittsburgh. He enjoys it here and he enjoys the guys in a the clubhouse a lot. He fits in great.”