BRADENTON, Fla. -- A.J. Burnett came to Pittsburgh for the opportunity to be a leader, to set the tone for a pitching staff, and on April 1, he will get to set the tone for an entire team.
Burnett will make the first Opening Day start of his extensive career that afternoon at PNC Park, opposing the Cubs to start the Pirates' 123rd season.
"It's been a long time," said the 36-year-old veteran right-hander, "and I'm looking forward to it. Man, it's going to be exciting. And what better place to do it than in Pittsburgh?"
Burnett will be beginning the 15th season of a career he has predominantly spent as the second banana in three different rotations: to Josh Beckett in Florida, to Roy Halladay in Toronto, then to CC Sabathia with the Yankees.
Thereby is the secret to his turnaround success with the Pirates, who a year ago had a vacancy for staff ace Burnett was thrilled to fill.
Manager Clint Hurdle never had a doubt about what fueled Burnett's impressive 2012 debut season with the Pirates following three frustrating years in the Bronx.
"A.J. needed a situation where he could be the guy. He was looking for a place to start anew, with a clean slate," said Hurdle, who had confirmed Burnett's Opening Day assignment late Wednesday. "He came in here to take care of business, and found this a good group with which to share his experiences.
"More than anything else, he leads by example."
On April 1, Burnett will lead by making the first pitches to rinse out the bitterness of September.
"It's not just another game. I know we always say that, that we need to treat it the same, but if I was to say I'm going to treat it like a normal start, I'd be lying to you," Burnett said. "It's special. It's the beginning of a new season, so it sets a tone from Day One.
"I look forward to doing that. It'll be a big deal for every player out there. You want to start off with a bang. Nobody was more exasperated last year than the guys in the clubhouse, just because we knew we were a better team, and we have a lot of guys in camp ready to prove that."
No one was exempt from sharing the Pirates' notorious collapse. And that included Burnett, who finished 16-10, but won only one of 10 starts after Aug. 16, albeit his run and defensive support declined far more than did his own pitching.
That is what fresh starts are all about.
"I'm sure how it looks from the outside: The last couple of weeks didn't look good, but the effort was there, it just didn't work out," Burnett said. "The team learned from it, and hopefully we can now turn it around.
"I'm sure people are tired of hearing, 'We're taking steps, we're getting better.' Bottom line is, we are getting better. I'm looking forward to Day One."
This will be Burnett's first Opening Day start, but not his first Opening Day assignment. The minute he first put on a Pirates uniform last year, on Feb. 20 following his late acquisition from the Yankees, Hurdle had planned to give him the ball for the '12 opener.
Then that foul bunt off his own bat fractured an eye-orbital bone, making him an Opening Day injury-scratch for the second time.
"I've had a couple opportunities [to start openers] and haven't been able to make it, from an injury standpoint," Burnett said. "So that does make it mean a lot more. I've been waiting a long time for it. At least I was there for the 2012 opener (Halladay outdueled Erik Bedard at PNC Park for a 1-0 Phillies victory.) It was very exciting.
"It's an honor and a privilege. I wouldn't want to do it for any other team, the fans have been so supportive. It'll be a crazy atmosphere," added Burnett, who then predicted it will also be a winning atmosphere.
Well, not exactly. But he did say he is looking forward to "a great night," and since first pitch on Opening Day will be 1:35 p.m. ET, he made it sound like he plans to be doing some celebrating.
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.Less