BRADENTON — On Saturday, right-hander A.J. Burnett was driving down to Florida from Baltimore, not sure of which city he was going to end up at –Tampa, where the New York Yankees train, or Bradenton, where the Pirates hold their spring training. During his drive, Burnett received a call from Bucs Manager Clint Hurdle and General Manager Neal Huntington welcoming him to the team.
Pirate City is where he ended up.
“I’m looking forward to this,” Burnett said. “It’s going to be a fresh start, go back to the National League where I can hit and bunt, get the joy back in the game.”
Burnett struggled in New York after signing a five-year contract in 2008. During the 2011 season, Burnett went 11-11 with a 5.15 ERA over 32 starts, and lost the joy in baseball.
“I put more pressure on myself than anybody else does,” Burnett said. “I think that it was fun the first couple years.”
“I’m not saying it wasn’t fun [ in New York]. I get to run around the bases again, hit, things like that. It’s been fun, it’s been great. I have no regrets. I got my ring there. I got to play with a team that a lot of people won’t get to play with, Hall of Famers, and I played for a great Manager, great city. That chapters closed. Now, it’s time to move on to the next one.”
The new chapter, for the next two seasons at least, will be in Pittsburgh.
“He’s a seasoned veteran,” Hurdle said. “He has pitched innings. He’s pitched innings in a very challenging division. He’s had successes, he’s had challenges. He’s had a lot thrown at him and a lot of experience to add to our ball club, on the field and in the realm of our pitching. It’s going to create more depth for starters. It will eventually create more depth to the bullpen.”
Behind the plate this season is catcher Rod Barajas. A guy Burnett knows well. One of his best seasons recently in the Majors in 2008, where struck out a career-high 231 batters over 221.1 innings, Barajas was behind the plate.
“It’s going to be fun. I’m not just saying that because you guys are standing here,” Burnett said in front of media at Pirate City on Monday. “He’s one of the best catchers that I’ve ever thrown to. It’s going to be fun to work with him again.”
During that season, Burnett made a career-high 34 starts and posted a 4.07 ERA. The reason behind the success with Barajas was fun.
“He makes the game fun” Burnett said. “He’s a hard worker. He keeps you on track. But the main thing is to have fun in this game, and Rod’s found a way for me to do that, and get the job done at the same time.”
Over the past three seasons with the Yankees, Burnett posted a 4.79 ERA. Burnett said not succeeding in New York could be due to the tinkering with his mechanics.
“I think I let a few too many people tinker with me maybe,” he said. “When you let that happen you get out there and you start doubting yourself sometimes. ‘Am I doing this right? Is this the way this is supposed to feel? This and that.’ In  nobody messed with me, I was able to do what I wanted to do on the mound…You have a few bad games, you start changing and listening. I had good games, I had bad games. I had one pretty good consistent year in , and I’m looking forward to getting back to that.”
The Pirates are hoping that Burnett can get back to the way he pitched in 2008 as well. Burnett will right-handers Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens, James McDonald, and lefty Erik Bedard in a young roatation, and a youthful team.
“Hopefully [I can] just lead by example,” Burnett said of his veteran role. “I’m a hard worker. I’ll take the ball every five days. I’m not going to take any excuses. That’s one of the things I can take away from my time in New York, I never back down from anything. And that’s what it’s all about…How you carry yourself in certain situations. I’m not a cheerleader, pom pom, I’m not going to have a “C” on my chest, but I know right and wrong, and hopefully I shine some light on the young players.”
“He’s experienced some very good, he’s experienced some challenging times, and that’s going to be a good thing for our inexperienced guys,” Huntington said. “It’s going to help them. But we primarily brought him here to help us win games, to give us a legitimate shot to win every time he takes the baseball, to eat up innings for us. And to get back to the guy that A.J. Burnett can [be].”
One thing Burnett will provide with the Pirates is durability. The righty has made at least 32 starts in each of the past four seasons. No Pirates starter pitched more innings in 2011 than Burnett did (190.1).
“It took me a while to figure it out,” Burnett said. “I don’t have no magic things to do. I just have a good routine, throwing program, running, just maintaining and just knowing what your body can do.”
“We’re looking for A.J. getting out there every fifth day, helping this young team mature, helping this young team taking a big step forward, letting him get this change of scenery, letting him go back to who he is,” Huntington said. “When we were good last year our starting pitching carried us. And we’re going to need our starting pitching to carry us again this year.”