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In his first opener, Burnett ready to lead Bucs

Veteran eager to put 2012 in rearview mirror and get '13 started

PITTSBURGH -- One year ago, he was in the midst of rehabilitating from an embarrassing Spring Training mishap. But that did not prevent A.J. Burnett from making a side trip to PNC Park for Opening Day festivities.

That was a ridiculous gesture for someone who had yet to spend a single day in the city or play a single game with the team that called it home, an 1,800-mile round trip from Florida just to trot out to the third-base line and wave. But Burnett wanted to experience the occasion with his new teammates, wanted to take the pulse of fans he would be quickening for five months.

He wanted to be there because even before winning a game, he had won over a clubhouse.

"When I came over here, I became a leader. They didn't really give me a choice. I was a leader on this team last year before I got here. On my drive down [from Arkansas to Florida], I was a leader," said Burnett, whose response to that responsibility, in both emotion and performance, was brilliant. "It is what it is -- and I love it. It brings more out of me. When I take the mound, these guys all watch me, and that makes me tick."

If Burnett got such a kick out of attending a Pirates opener as a spectator, imagine how he will feel pitching one.

He gets that shot, and the ball, on Monday, winding up at 1:35 p.m. ET to deliver the 2013 season's first pitch to David DeJesus of the Chicago Cubs. Burnett will be starting his 15th season, but this will be the first he personally opens.

It could also very well be Burnett's last: He has begun to drop hints that post-2013 retirement is on his mind, such as giving it his all then "we'll see what happens after this season is over."

We do know what will happen when this season begins: Burnett will be cheered by 39,000 as he warms up in the bullpen, the cheers will grow when he cuts a path in the outfield grass toward the dugout in between catcher Russell Martin and pitching coach Ray Searage, and become deafening when he makes his slow way to the mound.

"I don't think it'll hit me till I walk on that field," Burnett said. "Yeah, I'm looking forward to it; can't wait. This is what we do; to be asked to get it off, it's really exciting. It will be fun to start the journey we're taking off on.

"There's no pressure. Besides maybe from the weather. But I can deal with snow."

That's lower-case, the left-handed-hitting J.T. Snow who used to abuse right-handers having retired a while ago. If the weather is problematic in the earliest Opening Day game in Pirates history, don't look for Burnett to show signs of distress, or even of discomfort. He will probably act like it's an 80-degree day at the beach, maybe even take the mound in short sleeves.

That is what you do when you are a team leader and 24 other guys take their cues from you. Burnett wanted that mantle when he left the Bronx and the Yankees, and finding it invigorated him and his pitching arm, from which flowed 16 victories.

"He was looking for a place to start anew, with a clean slate," manager Clint Hurdle recalled. "As soon as he walked in, he took care of the goods. He found this a good group to share his experiences with. When one of your best players is one of your hardest workers, it makes it easier for everybody."

"I go out there and try to lead by example, to motivate these guys and help them any way I can," Burnett said. "That's what keeps me coming back here every day. I consider myself that type of a player. Every time I take the mound, I do so for these guys.

"I said it a million times last year: I'm not here for my stats; I'm here to win ballgames for this team and lead it to a championship for Pittsburgh."

The Moses of Pirates baseball already has handed down his first commandment: Thou shalt not dwell on '12.

"I'm not going to answer any more last-year questions," Burnett said when the subject of last season's second-half collapse came up. "This year is about to start. The more you talk about negative things, the more it's on your mind.

"Guys figured it out. I think guys just pressed too hard, everyone tried to fix it by himself. There were a lot of bitter faces leaving the clubhouse, so we're ready to move on from that. We have to get over the fact that it happened."

The getting-over begins in earnest on Monday. Words will give way to action, the past will pan into the present.

"Now we play games that mean something," Burnett said. "Time to go."

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.

A.J. Burnett