Burnett leaves to a standing ovation
Wearing the black jersey that's been his favorite choice since his first days with the Pirates, A.J. Burnett slowly walked out to the mound for his 430th and final regular season start. His first pitch was a strike on the outside corner. The next pitch resulted in a fading liner to right field that Gregory Polanco retreated on and easily grabbed.
"It was an unreal moment, unreal," Burnett said of taking the mound in the first.
Trouble quickly ensued when Eugenio Suarez followed with a single and then advanced to third on a wild pickoff throw. By inning's end, Burnett had thrown 31 pitches and allowed two runs.
But the right-hander settled in and only allowed one more hit and struck out eight over the next five innings.
In seventh, Burnett showed signs of tiring, as Adam Duvall drove a solo home run into he right center field seats and Tucker Barnhart walked. With two outs and Barnhart on first, Burnett ran the count full on Jason Bourgeois. Sitting at 106 pitches, the right-hander was facing his last hitter of the game and possibly his career.
As the crowd stood, cheered and hoped for a storybook-ending STFD, Burnett unleashed a fastball that sailed high in the zone. Bourgeois walked down to first and Clint Hurdle emerged from the dugout.
"The command in that inning had gotten away from him a little bit," Hurdle said of his decision to remove Burnett. "Actually, it might have been better. I mean, if he finishes the inning he doesn't get the ovation he gets coming out. It just works out the way it's meant to work out."
When Hurdle got to the mound, Burnett held out his glove for his manager to take the ball. Hurdle gave him a spirited punch to the chest and the right-hander headed off the hill.
"When I exited the mound, I had in my mind that we were down 3-1," Burnett said. "Obviously, winning the game was more important than all that."
A standing ovation rained down on Burnett as he walked to the dugout and he acknowledged the cheering by pointing up to the crowd. After Burnett was greeted by his teammates, he re-emerged on the field for a curtain call.
"The way [the fans] reacted and how loud it was, you can ask me a million times what it was like but I can't tell you," Burnett said.
Burnett's performance since returning from injury has to make the Pirates encouraged about the four starters they will take into any potential postseason series. He's been fairly sharp in 28.2 innings and posted a 3.76 ERA. His command and velocity look to be where they were before his stint on the disabled list.
"In my mind, I ain't done yet," Burnett said. "We got a horse going up in a couple days against Chicago. He'll get me another start."
Francisco Cervelli caught 303 of Burnett's 2730 career innings. This season the catcher helped steer the right-hander to the best ERA of his career. After the game, Cervelli was quick to remind the press that tonight wasn't the last we'd see of Burnett.
"I think he is one of the best that I ever catched," Cervelli said. "You guys keep talking like he's not going to pitch again. That's not going to happen. He will pitch again. We will see him a couple more times."
Whatever happens in the weeks ahead, Burnett's final season worked out exactly like he planned it. He returned to Pittsburgh, pitched well and now he and the team are in a position to play deep into the postseason.
"I remember talking you guys in 2012 and the fans accepted me from the get-go, that's cool," Burnett said. "I had some great moments in my career and played for some great cities, but nothing like this. ...When you've got a city backing you, it's just icing on the cake."
Big game tomorrow
The Pirates' offense was absent in tonight's 3-1 loss. They now find themselves with a must-win game tomorrow to avoid heading to Chicago for the Wild Card game. Facing Arrieta is already a tall order, and having to do it in Wrigley is a daunting task.
"We do hard," Hurdle said of the situation facing the team Sunday. "We've done hard from the start until tomorrow. This is what the season has presented us. We'll send J.A. [Happ] out there tomorrow and win a ballgame and move on."