Burnett impresses Sandberg, Ruiz in Phils debut

Burnett impresses Sandberg, Ruiz in Phils debut
March 2, 2014, 6:00 pm
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A.J. Burnett (left) pitched two innings in his spring training debut with the Phillies, and manager Ryne Sandberg liked what he saw from his new right-hander. (AP)

CLEARWATER, Fla. – A.J. Burnett has been a Phillie for just two weeks and already he’s noticed something about his new club.

“I see intensity out there,” he said. “Guys seem like they do a good job of preparing. In the dugout, guys are pulling for each other. They expect to win.

“I think guys are tired of not winning over here, from what I can hear and what I see. So you have a lot of guys ready to show up, ready to stay healthy the best they can and put a good team on the field every day.”

After two straight seasons of no playoff baseball, Phillies ownership is also tired of not winning. That’s why it OK'd the late-winter signing of Burnett for $16 million last month. The expenditure put the Phillies on target to have a record payroll of over $175 million this season.

“It’s nice to have him,” manager Ryne Sandberg said with a smile. “No looking back.”

In a coincidence of scheduling, Burnett made his Phillies debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday afternoon. The 37-year-old right-hander spent the last two seasons with the Pirates, going 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA in 61 starts. The Pirates tried to re-sign Burnett, but their offer of $12 million for 2014 didn’t match up to the Phillies’ bid.

Burnett tipped his cap to his former teammates as he took the mound at Bright House Field.

“I joked around and said I planned it that way,” Burnett said. “I didn’t, but it sounds good. No, first time out it just so happened to be against those guys.”

Burnett worked two innings, allowed a hit and a run, walked none and struck out one. If it had been a regular-season game, Burnett would not have allowed the run. There was a blown umpiring call at second base with two outs that preceded the run being scored. Major League Baseball will use replay on such calls this season and this one would have been reversed.

“He was not as sharp as he’d like to be,” Sandberg said. “But his stuff was there. He had good velocity.”

Burnett’s approach to the start was different than other first spring starts he’s made in his career. He started throwing bullpen sessions at home in Maryland earlier than usual this winter. That left him ready to throw breaking balls the first time out. At the insistence of catcher Carlos Ruiz, he also threw a few changeups. That's usually a low-priority pitch for Burnett.

“I might be a little ahead of where I usually am at this time,” Burnett said. “I usually don’t throw a hook until my third start. I just kind of feel at the point where I can mix everything in rather than waiting.”

By using a deeper repertoire early in camp, Burnett will allow Ruiz to get to know him more quickly. Chemistry between a pitcher and catcher is crucial.

“For him to get to know me, get to know my tendencies, I figured it was better to start that off early than to wait,” Burnett said. “You know, my third or fourth start, he might have a day off, so I wanted to get the chance to work with him.”

Burnett debuted in the majors with the Marlins in 1999. Early in his career he was known for having a big arm, but he wasn’t exactly a student of the game. Later in his career, he was a teammate of Roy Halladay's in Toronto. He has credited Halladay for teaching him to pay attention to the game and to opposing hitters between starts. He is more cerebrally committed to the game than he was a youngster.

In the course of becoming a better student of the game, Burnett noticed Ruiz’s work behind the plate. Ruiz is always fully invested in his pitcher, and Burnett appreciated that from afar.

“He’s one of the guys I’ve watched for five or six years now,” Burnett said. “You pick up on those guys. Russell [Martin of the Pirates] was the same way. You watch them and think it would be fun to throw to those guys, so this was something I’ve been looking forward to.”

The building of a bond between pitcher and catcher had started before Sunday’s outing. Ruiz has caught a number of Burnett’s bullpen sessions over the last two weeks. In fact, Ruiz liked Burnett’s changeup so much that he pressed the pitcher to unveil it Sunday.

“The last 'pen, his changeup was great,” Ruiz said. “His curveball and sinker are already there so I told him, ‘Don’t be surprised if I call the changeup.’"

Ruiz takes great pride in communicating with his pitchers.

“The pitcher isn’t one person,” he said. “You have to stay on the same page. He has to trust me and himself, too. If he does that, he’ll have a lot of good games. I have to make him comfortable on the mound, know how he wants to work. That’s my responsibility. That’s why I’ve spent a lot of time talking with him the last few days and getting information. I want him to trust me and follow me.

“It was real fun catching him today. I’m really happy we have him.”