Burnett with his new batterymate

DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER A.J. Burnett threw some curveballs and changeups while working with Carlos Ruiz.
DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER A.J. Burnett threw some curveballs and changeups while working with Carlos Ruiz.
Posted: March 04, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - A.J. Burnett had only arrived to camp to join his new team 2 weeks earlier, but he didn't want to waste any time going through the motions in his first spring start yesterday.

Burnett, 37, who signed a 1-year, $16 million contract last month, brought his whole bag of tricks to the mound. No, the pitcher said, it wasn't because he wanted to compete at top form against his former Pittsburgh Pirates team in an exhibition game.

Burnett wanted to get on track immediately with his new catcher, Carlos Ruiz.

"I figured it was better to start that off early than to wait," Burnett said. "For him to get to know me, know my tendencies."

Burnett said he doesn't usually throw curveballs until his third start, but he did yesterday. Ruiz also called for four or five changeups, because the pitcher might want to incorporate the pitch more after using it sparingly in 2013.

A healthy working relationship for a baseball battery is important, obviously. But it also speaks to the workmanlike environment in Camp Clearwater this spring.

Following back-to-back disappointing seasons, the Phillies appear focused and motivated on making the most of 2014.

"We believe we can win, and that's the key, we think we can do it," Ruiz said. "But at the same time, we have to take that to the ballpark every day. We're going to win that game. Everything starts there. That's the key. Sometimes I feel like when you're losing, you're like, 'Oh my God, we're playing another game today?' So that mentality - it has to go away."

Ruiz senses a culture change already, which isn't a surprise since the firing of longtime, player-friendly manager Charlie Manuel obviously sends a message through the clubhouse that things need to change.

Burnett has been with the Phillies for just 2 weeks. His initial impression? That message has been received by his teammates.

"I think guys are real tired from not winning over here," Burnett said.

Burnett has picked up on that simply by watching his new teammates go to work each day.

"What I see is intensity out there . . . and guys seem like they do a good job of preparing," Burnett said. "In the dugout guys are pulling for each other. They expect to win."

Burnett's arrival on the fourth day of camp was surely a morale boost. The pitcher had a 3.41 ERA in the previous two seasons in Pittsburgh and led all National League starters in strikeout rate and ground ball rate in 2013.

Although Ruiz had success against Burnett in their respective careers, going 4-for-6 with a home run in head-to-head matchups, the catcher also knows it's never comfortable stepping in the box against the pitcher.

"He's a tough guy to hit, a tough guy to face," Ruiz said. "He likes to throw a lot of fastballs, he'll go right after you. And his tempo is unbelievable. He works real good, like Cliff [Lee]. Hitters don't like that."

Hitters also don't like getting plunked with pitches, and Burnett isn't afraid to be aggressive on the inner half of the strike zone. He once plunked Jayson Werth in a spring training game in 2005, shattering the outfielder's hand and leaving his career in limbo.

Burnett hit two Pirates batters yesterday, including cleanup hitter Pedro Alvarez, but was able to laugh about it afterward.

"[Alvarez and I] always laugh because I hit a lot of guys in the back foot - but they swing," Burnett said of the chat between the two players after the first-inning incident. "He always got a kick out of guys swinging and getting hit. So I said, 'You should have swung . . . it costs me another six, seven pitches.' "

Most of the Pirates were glad to catch up with Burnett, who helped the team end a 21-year playoff drought last season. Shortstop Jordy Mercer, Burnett's other hit-by-pitch victim, traded texts with his former teammate during the game, when both were already back in their respective clubhouses.

"It was good to see him again," Mercer said. "We all miss him here. He was fun to watch the past 2 years and he was a really big part of our team."

But not everyone was in the reuniting mood.

"I didn't reconnect with him," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. "I saw him on the mound and waved. That's about it. Not much of a reconnect."

Burnett spent the majority of the winter leaning toward retirement, and said at the outset of the offseason he was deciding between that or rejoining the Pirates. Instead, he signed a deal with the Phillies that guarantees him $23.5 million (it includes an option year for 2015) and a closer commute from his Monkton, Md., home.

Pittsburgh's loss was Philadelphia's gain.

"He fits in very well," manager Ryne Sandberg said. "He's a guy that was needed, and the way he goes about his business."

"You've got to be excited to have him on the mound," Ruiz said. "It's going to be fun."


On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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