PITTSBURGH – Before Sunday afternoon’s game between the Pirates and Rockies, A.J. Burnett took part in a simulated game in the Pirates’ bullpen. Burnett had Chris Stewart catching and calling balls and strikes, and Travis Ishikawa stood in as a batter on both the left and right side. In a very jovial mood following the session, Burnett stopped to talk with a group of reporters at PNC Park.
“We tried to make it as much like a game as possible,” Burnett said. “I didn’t want to just go out there and throw pitches. This was more realistic and game-like. We had some foul balls and hits. I didn’t walk anybody. There were some foul tips and strikeouts.”
Burnett threw about 70 pitches in five innings. He broke it down by throwing 16 pitches in the first, 12 pitches in the second, 20 in the third, and 8 or 9 in the fourth and fifth. He threw 40+ fastballs, 20 curveballs, and 6 or 7 changeups.
Burnett had high expectations for this step in his rehab, but he said it went better than expected.
“I’m very happy with it,” Burnett said. “I knew it was going to go good, but it went really well – better than I expected.”
“I don’t want to say I could’ve pitched today,” he said with a smirk, “but maybe I could’ve pitched today.”
The pain is gone in his right elbow after suffering a flexor strain. He allowed eight runs in 4.1 innings against Cincinnati on July 30th.
Burnett will throw a bullpen on Tuesday, and that should determine what the next step is for him. Asked when he thinks he might be eyeing a return, Burnett pointed to the Chicago Cubs series in mid-September. He did say that could very easily change — either it could be moved back or come earlier.
Burnett said that he will not go on a rehab assignment to the minor leagues. He also will not return in a bullpen role on the major league club.
“The good thing about it is that I only missed about eight games of throwing,” Burnett said. “I’ve thrown enough pitches where I know I can do it again in five days. We’ve been doing this since February, so in my mind, after only eight days of not throwing, I won’t lose a lot.”
A.J. Burnett’s rehab from the flexor strain seems to be going a lot better than anyone could have expected, according to the 38-year-old.
“I feel great. I feel strong,” Burnett said. “Usually you have something there from 16 years of throwing, but it’s pretty clean right now. Very positive – even more so after today.”
UPDATE 2:52 PM: By all accounts, it was a step in the right direction for A.J. Burnett as he attempts to return to the mound in mid-September from a forearm strain that he suffered after the All-star break. Neal Huntington weighed in on the outing before today’s game.
“He threw all three pitches effectively,” Huntington said when he met with reporters today. “The curveball was good, the change-up was good for A.J. and the fastball had life. The report from [Pitching Coach Ray Searage] was that he threw the ball very well and a very positive next step in his progression.”
The Pirates’ plan for Burnett is to throw another simulated game in St. Louis later next week – this time on the field as opposed to the bullpen. It’s unclear whether Burnett will add onto his five-inning, 75-pitch limit.
“That’ll be kind of a game-day decision based on how the ball is coming out, how A.J.’s feeling and then we’ll be able to make a decision from there what the next step will be,” Huntington said.
Huntington did not rule out the possibility of Burnett returning in time to pitch in the Cubs series that begins on September 15th.
“That would be a positive, but if that’s the way it plays out that’s great for us. If we need a little bit more time then we’ll take a little bit more time.” – Pete Ellis