July 8, 2012 1:15 pm by J. Brady McCollough / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A.J. Burnett sat on a black leather sofa in the Pirates clubhouse Tuesday night, processing what had just happened.
He understood the basics. His attempt to win his ninth start in a row had not gone well. He did not have his best stuff, and the Astros had dropped lightly hit balls in all the right places. He might have just cost his team a shot at first place in the National League Central, which stung him.
Past all of that, his night on the mound had been pretty hard to fathom — especially the end of it. “I'm like, 'This crowd just cheered me off the field,' ” Burnett said. “I gave up 12 hits and six runs. I'm like, 'That's crazy.' “
In almost 14 major-league seasons, in 323 starts spanning 2,047 innings, Burnett had never experienced such a thing. Unconditional love? From fans of a professional baseball franchise? He'd spent most of the last three years being booed out of Yankee Stadium and then having to answer for it to an unforgiving and unrelenting press corps. He was the $82.5 million man, signed by the Yankees for five seasons, and the perfection demanded was certainly not going to be met by a perfectionist like Burnett.
Now here he was, less than a year later, in Pittsburgh, questioning just how he could have been so lucky. The honeymoon phase with his new city had begun almost immediately, when he came here to have eye surgery in early March. He had taken a bunt to the eye in spring training — “Perfect start,” he sarcastically said — but by the time he was riding in from the airport he was feeling much better.
The man who drove Burnett's limousine told him how excited he was to have him here. The nurses who helped with his surgery echoed that sentiment. The same vibe found him at a restaurant near the ballpark.
“They took me in before I threw one pitch here,” Burnett said. “People were ecstatic, and I was like, 'Well, I haven't even pitched yet. you might want to hold on.'”
Burnett was right to warn them. He is not a Cy Young winner. He has never made an All-Star team. His career record entering the season was 121-111, a bit above average.
But, thus far, it has turned out those strangers were right about him. Entering today's start against the Giants, he has a 9-2 record and a 3.74 ERA, and he's one of the biggest reasons to believe that the Pirates cannot only be in first place in July but also stay there into October unlike last year.