PITTSBURGH -- James McDonald was still engulfed by media late Thursday evening when a reporter peeled away from the scrum. As the reporter began to walk off, he passed A.J. Burnett ambling the other way. As he passed Burnett and without stopping, the reporter pointed a backward thumb toward McDonald and said under his breath, "Nice job." Without stopping, Burnett said, "Yeah, it's getting there."
One of Burnett's key contributions to the Pirates can be seen every fifth day -- when McDonald takes the mound. The veteran's influence on his younger counterpart has been well documented, and extreme. The most recent evidence of this was McDonald's complete-game win over Minnesota on Thursday, the first complete game of his career. Of course, Burnett has done pretty well on his days to pitch, too. He started Friday night's series opener against the Tigers with a 7-2 record and 3.52 ERA, the kind of performance that has lent weight to his words of advice. Everyone in the clubhouse recognizes the positive impact that both Burnett and veteran catcher Rod Barajas have had on McDonald, who has made 14 starts and not allowed more than three runs in any of them, the first Pittsburgh pitcher to do that since the 19th century. He is also averaging 6 1/2 innings per start, a full inning more than a year ago. While discussing McDonald's improvement in the immediate aftermath of Thursday's gem, Andrew McCutchen was quick to note that "having A.J. by his side has definitely helped him." And Burnett's impact has trickled down through McDonald to the rest of the pitching staff. Not everyone may have been as dramatically affected but, said manager Clint Hurdle, "they're all sure of themselves. There's a lot of self-confidence going on. I really like the pace, the rhythm."