Burnes' hot start draws comp to ... Cy Young?

Right-hander begins 2021 on historic pace

April 9th, 2021

Tommy Edman led off the bottom of the first inning of the Cardinals’ home opener Thursday. Two Corbin Burnes pitches later, he was in an 0-2 hole. What if Burnes had finished him off?

Would it have been another no-hitter watch for one of the Brewers’ home-grown aces? It feels like there’s a no-hitter in the air every time that Brandon Woodruff and Burnes take the mound these days.

Instead, Burnes had the same fate as Woodruff did the day before in Chicago, a no-decision. And unlike Woodruff, who got to celebrate a win for the team, Burnes was left to lament a teammate’s moment of defensive indecision, a Nolan Arenado go-ahead home run in the eighth inning of his home debut as a Cardinal, and a 3-1 Brewers loss at Busch Stadium.

“We have to score a little bit more, there’s no question about it,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We have two guys who are pitching well. They’re off to good starts and have a lot of confidence in what they’re doing. That’s going to help us down the road, we know that.”

Burnes was spotless aside from Edman’s leadoff triple over six scoreless -- and absolutely electric -- innings, even though Burnes didn’t like the way that he threw his cutter and said that he generally lacked his good put-away stuff.

Burnes didn’t walk a batter, struck out nine and departed with a 1-0 lead. Coupled with his 6 1/3-inning, one-hit gem against the Twins five days earlier, Burnes became the first pitcher in modern history (since 1901) with consecutive starts of six-plus innings with no walks and no more than one hit allowed. Only two other pitchers have done the same in back-to-back outings, and each pitched once in relief -- 1963 Houston Colt 45 Hal Brown and 1904 Boston American Cy Young.

Yeah, that Cy Young.

And of the three, Burnes was the only one to deliver those back-to-back gems in his first two games of a season.

There was nearly Brewers history, too. Burnes already has 20 strikeouts on his ledger. That left him one shy of the franchise record for strikeouts through a pitcher’s first two starts, a mark set by Moose Haas in 1978 over consecutive complete games.

Burnes is not ready to go that far into a game. The Brewers are being particularly careful with pitch counts to begin this season as baseball reverts to a 162-game schedule after playing 60 regular-season games during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. That’s why Burnes was lifted after allowing a Byron Buxton homer on the 87th pitch of his season debut, and why he did not come out for the seventh inning Thursday at 86 pitches after feeling fatigue set in.

“When I went out for the sixth, I wasn’t able to get my legs under me,” Burnes said. “Woody had the same thing. As the season goes along, you’re able to get your legs underneath you [to] keep you in the game.”

He departed as part of a fateful series of changes. When Eric Yardley came on in relief, the Brewers also switched out two-time Gold Glove Award-winning second baseman Kolten Wong -- the former Cardinal who teared up to the sound of a standing ovation as he led off the ballgame -- who had to depart with a flare-up of a left oblique issue. Daniel Robertson took Wong’s spot, and was shifted to the shortstop side of second base with two outs and the bases loaded when Cardinals left fielder Tyler O’Neill hit a bouncer right to that spot.

Robertson slipped, then appeared to consider taking the ball to second base for a force, before throwing to first base. It was too late. O’Neill was safe on what was ruled an infield hit, and the Cardinals had the tying run. Burnes, therefore, was saddled with a no-decision.

“I don’t think the slip helped,” Counsell said. “After he slipped, it took a little bit to get his feet back underneath him. I think that was a little bit of the issue here.” 

An inning later, Arenado introduced himself to the local fans with a two-run home run off of Drew Rasmussen. The former Colorado Rockies third baseman has long been a thorn in the side of Brewers pitchers. Coming into the year, his 1.128 OPS against Milwaukee ranked as the fourth-highest all-time among hitters with at least 100 career at-bats. Only Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza and Troy Tulowitzki had done more damage.

“We’re at Game 7 of 162, with possibly 30 more starts [for Burnes],” Counsell said. “We can’t get ‘behind’ now. This is just not the time to push. The same goes for the guys in the bullpen. We can’t push them either right now. There’s a couple guys who have thrown the ball well who have pitched a bunch, too. 

“This is what we have to do. We have to play the long game here. Every baseball season requires that, but this year probably as much as any. We’re pitching really well. We’re going to score more. I’m excited that our pitching is off to this start. This is what we hoped for, this is what we thought we could do off the mound. To be able to do that right off the bat is really exciting.”