It wasn’t until after last Friday’s game ended that it occurred to me that AJ Burnett may have thrown his last game as a Pittsburgh Pirate. The main reason for that was that I was doing my best to not think about what would happen if the Pirates lost Tuesday’s playoff game to the Reds (obviously in the mind of a superstitious fan, thinking about failure like that just invites the universe to disappoint you), but as soon as I realized that it was possible that Burnett’s Pirate days might be over, my immediate thought was, “It’d be so unfair if he didn’t get to pitch in a playoff game for the Pirates.”
I know that a lot of Pirate fans probably thought the same thing because everyone loves the "Sit the f*ck down" hard-ass Batman with a heart of gold persona that Burnett's cultivated with the Pirates, but to me, Burnett represents something a little bit different. To me, Burnett represents a turning of the tide.
When the Pirates traded for Burnett last spring, there were immediately two different light bulbs that went off for me. Burnett wasn't a free agent that chose to sign with the Pirates, but he did have a partial no-trade clause with the Yankees and that prevented him from being dealt to West Coast teams without permission. The Angels were interested and the Yankees wanted to deal him to them, but Burnett vetoed the trade to Los Angelheim even knowing that the result would be Pittsburgh. After years of watching free agents use the Pirates as a negotiating tactic before signing somewhere else (Edwin Jackson did that over the same winter), it was a little unexpected and refreshing to see Burnett not veto the trade when he had the option.
The second thing that I immediately noticed was that Burnett was really undervalued by the Yankees. It went beyond Burnett having an ERA much higher than his xFIP; Burnett was also a terrible fit for Yankee Stadium and a great fit for PNC Park. For the early part of the Neal Huntington era, it looked like the club was mainly interested in starters that could either induce groundballs or would be willing to sign with them. The Burnett trade and his subsequent transformation into more of a groundball pitcher under Ray Searage last year revealed quite a bit more about what sort of reclamation projects the Pirates would be interested in, and seeing them go after Burnett and how Burnett fit into things once he showed up started to make me really feel like there was a goal that the front office was driving towards.
It's impossible to say that without Burnett there'd be no Russell Martin or Francisco Liriano or Marlon Byrd, but it's also hard not to notice that before 2012 season, it was practically impossible to convince anyone other than a husk of a baseball player to come play for the Pirates and in 2013, the Pirates won a playoff game behind two free agent signings in their first year with the Pirates and a late-season trade acquisition who's looked like a kid at Christmas every time he steps on the field for the Pirates in this playoff race.
Burnett has been uneven for the whole second half of this season. If we go back to his start against the Cardinals in Game 1 of the double header on July 31st, Burnett's made 12 starts. In four of those, he's given up 5+ runs, and he's got one more where he gave up four runs. In the other seven starts, he pitched into the seventh inning and gave up one or two runs. Four of those 12 starts have been against the Cardinals. He was brilliant in two of them (14 innings, 7 hits, 2 runs, 15 strikeouts, 4 walks) and awful in two of them (7 1/3 innings, 14 hits, 10 runs, 8 strikeouts, 2 walks). The good starts were at PNC Park and the bad starts were at Busch Stadium. Burnett's start tonight is at Busch.
Maybe that means that I should be terrified for this Game 1, but for whatever reason, I'm not. It's partially because even a best-of-five series feels like a luxury after the craziness of Tuesday, but it's also partially because Burnett came out dealing in both of his starts against the Reds to end the season. That includes a 12-strikeout domination and an eight inning, six strikeout, five hit performance at Great American last Friday that put the Pirates within a game of homefield for the wild card game. Really, though, it just seems fitting that Burnett is starting this game. I think that when I look back on everything that happened to get the Pirates to this point, Burnett's acquisition is going to be a turning point just like the drafting and signing of Pedro Alvarez and the rise of Starling Marte through the minors.
AJ Burnett is starting Game 1 of the NLDS this afternoon. We've come a long way, haven't we?