CLEARWATER, Fla. -- A.J. Burnett plunked Pedro Alvarez on his back foot Sunday afternoon with a two-strike pitch. The two men joked about it. Burnett, apparently, has a propensity for being so precise that often the batter swings and misses at that pitch.
For the last two seasons, Alvarez marvelled at that skill. He knew how much it irked Burnett not to acquire another victim. Now, as opponents and not teammates, they laughed while Burnett's first inning as a Phillie unfolded.
"You should have swung," Burnett yelled. "You could have been on a highlight reel, that was you!"
This banal scene was beautiful to the Phillies, a team with more appreciation for Burnett with every passing day this spring. He is their $16 million rock, a 37-year-old rotation stabilizer who once proclaimed he would pitch for Pittsburgh in 2014 or retire. Instead, he induced groundouts from five Pirates in two innings.
Afterward, Ryne Sandberg chose not to envision an alternate reality in which the Phillies did not acquire Burnett. "No looking back there," he said. Questions about Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Jonathan Pettibone and Ethan Martin thinned a depleted starting corps. Cole Hamels could miss a couple of starts.
The search for a fifth starter -- without Burnett's presence -- would be laborious. Instead, the Phillies possess no clear sixth option, which is a concern they can delay. In other words, there is one less complication to bother the manager.
"He fits in very well," Sandberg said of Burnett. "A veteran guy, a quality right-hander. He is a guy that was needed, and the way he goes about his business..."
That aspect is what most impressed Clint Hurdle, Burnett's manager in Pittsburgh for the previous two seasons. Burnett was not regarded as a mentor, but he adopted the young Pirates pitchers and bestowed the lessons gleaned from more than a decade in the majors.
Burnett worked harder in the four days between his starts, Hurdle said, which established expectations for the rest of the staff. He led the National League in strikeouts per nine innings last season and posted a career-low 3.30 ERA.
'There's always going to be a group of players who will use their ears and eyes so long as they are in a uniform. I'm still using mine at 56. There are always things to learn, especially coming out of the experiences he had in the past'
"It was a combination of him maturing as a pitcher and confidence, all of those things," Hurdle said. "He did a real professional job for us whenever he had the ball."
A 36-year-old pitcher still needed to mature?
"There's always going to be a group of players who will use their ears and eyes so long as they are in a uniform," Hurdle said. "I'm still using mine at 56. There are always things to learn, especially coming out of the experiences he had in the past. We all feel like there are certain things we can accomplish and improve upon. He drives himself. He sets the bar extremely high for himself. He continued to work.
"We helped maybe a little bit. He's willing to listen. He tried some things."
For Burnett, this spring is about acclimation. He arrived four days after the rest of the Phillies pitchers and catchers. But he threw his entire repertoire Sunday -- earlier than usual -- because he wanted to test the burgeoning relationship with Carlos Ruiz, his new catcher. Burnett said it was best for Ruiz to understand his tendencies now.
"He's great back there," Burnett said. "I was looking forward to that for a while."
"That's a veteran guy looking for any edge," Sandberg said. "These spring training games and outings are big as far as that goes when you have a new pitcher and a new catcher."
Burnett was not his sharpest. He hit two Pirates. He allowed one run, although a missed call on the bases would have prevented it. He threw 39 pitches, donned a red hooded sweatshirt, and waved his glove at applauding Phillies fans.
"I think guys are real tired from not winning over here," Burnett said. On this day, the Phillies were just grateful to call him a teammate when the opposite was truly possible.
-- Philadelphia Inquirer