Burnett slated for simulated game Saturday

Burnett slated for simulated game Saturday

BRADENTON, Fla. -- A.J. Burnett's accelerating recovery from a facial fracture hit a different gear on Wednesday, when the right-hander made 52 pitches in his third comeback bullpen session, and afterwards, he declared it's almost "time to go."

Burnett will take two days off from throwing, and barring any setbacks, progress to pitching a simulated game on Saturday.

He thus would be back facing batters three weeks after being laid up with a pack of frozen peas pressed to a right eye swollen shut by surgery to repair his fractured orbital bone.

It's welcome progress for the pitcher expected to be out a total of eight to 12 weeks following his Feb. 29 run-in with a fouled bunt. Don't get ahead of yourself, though. Burnett and his pitching coach sure aren't.

The pitcher himself had lobbied for a third side session.

"I could've gone to live batting practice -- the eye is fine, my strength feels good -- but I wanted to work on timing and mechanical things like that," Burnett said. "Today was definitely a big step; it felt a lot better than the previous two."

"I don't want to go too fast. [I'd] rather be extra patient," said pitching coach Ray Searage, who intimated that there have been past occasions when he nursed sidelined pitchers back too rashly.

There is no chance Burnett gets into a game in the two weeks remaining in the Bucs' preseason. For that prospect to even be raised says a lot about how encouragingly he has gone through the early stages of his rehab.

"I'm not really surprised," Searage said, "because it wasn't an arm injury. Pretty soon, he'll be ready to pitch in a [simulated] game. [Today] again went good for A.J. We worked on his timing, throwing from the stretch and the windup. The ball was coming out of his hand good."

Burnett had been back in camp eight days after his surgery, and back on a mound a week after that. From there, his recovery rate has only picked up.

"Getting back on the mound, the first couple of times was like a one-legged table. ... That's what it felt like," Burnett said, referring to a lack of solid footing. "That's why I wanted another bullpen [session], to throw more pitches. I'm behind these guys quite a bit, but the more I get out there, the better I feel."

Seeing Burnett back hard at work is having a calming effect on the camp of the Pirates, who couldn't help here-we-go-again pangs when the veteran fouled a bunt into his right eye socket only 10 days after his trade from the Yankees became official.

The team's -- and its fans' -- anxiety to have Burnett back at full strength is tempered by the realization off-days will prevent the Bucs from needing a No. 5 starter until mid-April. The club will already have a starter in reserve -- most likely Charlie Morton -- and could face a decision from strength when it comes time to accommodate Burnett.

At the time of the injury, Burnett was still in the preliminary stage of the usual process of getting his arm game-ready. On Wednesday, he had difficulty comparing his current status to the point where he had been then.

"I feel the same," he said. "The workouts haven't yet gotten to the point where I want them, but they will. Each day I'm putting more into it, going harder. Once the games start and I get on a five-day routine, it'll be better.

"It's all a step-by-step process. I've got the simulated game coming up, and after that, it'll be time to go."

Burnett almost made it sound like he'd want to get after the real thing, real soon. Those things you see in Searage's hands are the reins.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.