By Rob Rossi
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett talks with Neil Walker in the dugout during a game against the Cubs on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015, at PNC Park.
A.J. Burnett's ballclub should follow its leader.
Prepare for the worst, and hope to get lucky.
Before Monday, when a medical examination delivered the diagnosis of only a flexor strain in his right elbow, Burnett was ready to hear from a surgeon that this Dark Knight wouldn't rise for even one more major league pitch.
“Everybody was writing it, so you can't help thinking about it,” Burnett said. “I was prepared for both.”
If Burnett's conversation with Neal Huntington went anything like his exchange with the media, the Pirates' general manager must have felt as though he had just become an honorary member of The Flying Wallendas. Only instead of distance, Huntington is being forced to walk a tightrope over a period of time.
In a news release, the Pirates called for Burnett's return in “approximately four weeks.” Burnett called the timetable “iffy.”
“We're shooting at four weeks, but it could be before, it could be after,” Burnett said. “It basically depends. Once the soreness from the shot goes away, we'll go from there.”
Sure seems like a baseball first: pitcher gets the win, but his team takes a no-decision.
The Pirates know not when their No. 3 starter can play catch, let alone pitch off a mound, or if that pitching will occur in an actual game. And this touch of gray has appeared in the their black beards with more than enough gamedays remaining for a an armada of Giants, Cubs and Metropolitans to chase down, if not sink, the Good Ship Jolly Roger.
Oh, and the easiest-to-negotiate of baseball's two trade deadlines just passed.
Huntington better not look down. He's working without a net.
Everybody associated with the Pirates, and probably the entirety of Pittsburgh's population, is pulling for Burnett to make it back in time for another September surge. For the story of his proclaimed final season to feel good, he must toe the rubber in the National League division series against St. Louis. Unless he throws a curve into the Cardinals' plan to claim supremacy, Burnett can't complete the natural arc of his Pittsburgh/Batman trilogy.
Huntington must proceed as if a curve has been thrown his direction, even if Burnett, as he said Monday, is “100 percent positive” he'll pitch again for the Pirates. With all due respect to Burnett, the most important Pirates' acquisition from another team since Andy Van Slyke, Huntington would be foolish to feel 100 percent comfortable in the return to form of a 38-year-old pitcher with 2,743 major-league innings of wear on his right arm.
The Pirates, though, do need a return to the formula that has propelled them to their current slot atop the National League wild-card standings. That formula had three main ingredients: the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 starters.
Of their 61 victories, 37 had come in games started by Burnett, Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. The Pirates were only 24-18 in games not pitched by their Nos. 1, 2 and 3 starters, compared to 12 games over .500 with Cole, Liriano and Burnett on the bump.
Unless he fancies walking the tightrope that is hoping Burnett will be back — and back to his stunning career-best form from before the All-Star break — Huntington's safest step is to start talking to every GM who ended up stuck with a starter after the non-waiver trade deadline expired last Friday.
Would either of a couple of San Diego Padres (Tyson Ross or Ian Kennedy) look lovely as the Pirates' third starter?
Huntington knows the answer to that question.
What he couldn't know for sure, though he could take a fairly educated guess, is whether any of those pitchers could clear waivers. If that guess is “no,” maybe the solution is starting top prospect Tyler Glasnow's service-time clock.
All but one National League contender is looking up at the Pirates in the standings.
But the Pirates are the only National League contender looking vulnerable where they once threw aces.
Read more: http://triblive.com/sports/robrossi/8833074-74/burnett-pirates-huntington#ixzz3hqArB0db
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