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Playoff vet Burnett embraces Game 1 start

Drawing on experience, Bucs righty ready to duel with Cards' Wainwright to open NLDS

ST. LOUIS -- When the Pirates acquired A.J. Burnett prior to the 2012 season, the hope was the veteran right-hander would be able to provide leadership and perhaps get the ball in some important games. The first of what the Bucs hope is a string of vital starts comes on Thursday in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.

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Burnett will oppose Adam Wainwright in the series opener at Busch Stadium, scheduled to start at 5 p.m. ET on TBS.

"It's a big opportunity for this team, this organization and this city," Burnett said on the eve of delivering on the February 2012 promise.

"I wouldn't want it any other way," Burnett added about the responsibility of pitching Game 1, perhaps disproportionately important in a short best-of-five series. "Start it off going up against a horse in Adam, and I'm looking forward to going pitch for pitch with him."

Tale of the Tape: Game 1
A.J. Burnett
Adam Wainwright
2013 regular season
Overall: 30 GS, 10-11, 3.30 ERA, 67 BB, 209 SO Overall: 34 GS, 19-9, 2.94 ERA, 35 BB, 219 SO
Key stat: While posting a 2.37 ERA at home this season, Burnett had a 4.22 mark on the road. Key stat: Wainwright has won his last four decisions, posting a 1.80 ERA (seven earned runs in 35 innings) over that stretch.
At Busch Stadium
2013: 3 GS, 1-1, 8.10 ERA
Career: 4 GS, 1-2, 13.50 ERA
2013: 17 GS, 9-6, 2.53 ERA
Career: 128 G, 97 GS, 53-32, 2.67 ERA
Against this opponent
2013: 6 GS, 3-1, 3.67 ERA
Career: 17 GS, 8-6, 4.11 ERA
2013: 3 GS, 1-0, 3.00 ERA
Career: 22 G, 18 GS, 9-4, 4.81 ERA
Loves to face: Yadier Molina, 4-for-25
Hates to face: Matt Carpenter, 9-for-21, 2 2B, 2 3B
Loves to face: Marlon Byrd, 4-for-17, 7 K
Hates to face: Andrew McCutchen, 12-for-28, 4 2B, 3B, HR
Game breakdown
Why he'll win: Over his last three starts, Burnett has posted a 2.08 ERA (five earned runs in 21 2/3 innings). Why he'll win: In 13 career postseason appearances (four starts), Wainwright is 2-0 with a 2.48 ERA. In 32 2/3 innings, he struck out 42 and walked six.
Pitcher beware: Burnett has struggled in his postseason career, going 2-2 with a 5.08 ERA in seven starts. Pitcher beware: Wainwright has a 6.09 ERA (23 earned runs in 34 innings) in the first inning this season.
Bottom line: Burnett has to shake off his road struggles this season, particularly at Busch Stadium. He also has to minimize runners in scoring position, as the Cardinals batted .330 in that situation this season. Bottom line: Wainwright has to set the tone early. His ERA over the first three innings this season is 3.92. Over the final six innings of a game, it drops to 2.24.

The 36-year-old Burnett went 10-11 with a 3.30 ERA, matching the lowest ERA of his 15-year career. He was particularly effective down the stretch, winning back-to-back starts against the Reds, the second one coming last Friday that allowed the Pirates to inch closer to nabbing home field for the NL Wild Card Game, something they took care of the following day.

On Tuesday night, Burnett saw something he had long felt: These Bucs were not satisfied with merely living beyond a Game 162.

"They're not content with being the Wild Card, not content with getting to where we already are," Burnett said. "They want to go further, dump more champagne on each other, celebrate more. And the thing that has impressed me most about these guys is the one-game mentality they keep throwing out there. Good or bad, they're always ready the next day."

Burnett is no stranger to the Cardinals, having drawn six starts against St. Louis during the 2013 regular season. He went 3-1 with a 3.67 ERA in 34 1/3 innings, allowing 27 hits and just nine walks while striking out 37. Most of that success, however, came at home. In three Busch Stadium starts, Burnett allowed 12 runs on 19 hits over 13 1/3 innings (8.10 ERA). His one win in St. Louis came back in late April.

"You can't point fingers at the ballpark. Point fingers at me," Burnett said. "The bottom line is pitch execution, getting the ball where you want. In the games I've had decent success against them, I've been able to make pitches at times. That's all it is. It's a great lineup, and they'll capitalize on mistakes. In the good games, I've limited those."

Burnett's postseason track record is a bit spotty, with a 5.08 ERA in seven starts. All 39 of his playoff innings came with the Yankees from 2009-11. He has a 2-2 record, having allowed 32 hits and 23 walks, while striking out 31 over those 39 innings.

"I pitched when everybody said I could and came through," said Burnett, doubtless reflecting on the Game 4 start in the 2011 American League Division Series that kept the Yanks alive against the Tigers, who did close out New York in Game 5. "So I've been through it all. [My previous postseason experience] will be really big."

There have been some shining moments for Burnett, and Pirates fans might draw some comfort from the fact that two of his best postseason outings came in Division Series. Burnett started Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS against the Twins, allowing just one run over six innings. He didn't figure into the decision, but the Yankees did go on to win the game 4-3, en route to winning a World Series championship that year.

That Game 4 start in 2011 came with the Yanks' backs against the wall, down two games to one against the Tigers. Burnett, who had struggled for much of what would be his final season with New York, turned in a gritty performance, allowing a run in 5 2/3 innings. The Yankees broke it open late to win, 10-1, to sent that series back to the Bronx, where Detroit won a 3-2 clincher.

Burnett had two other strong outings in his postseason past, more to make the Pittsburgh faithful feel good should their October ride last a while longer. He beat the Angels in Game 2 of the 2009 AL Championship Series, then turned in an absolute gem, holding the Phillies to one run over seven innings in beating them in Game 2 of that year's World Series.

Pittsburgh's Tat Man looks for his playoff pedigree to play well in Busch Stadium, whose tenants are well-steeped in their own postseason experiences.

"I'll be ready for anything," Burnett said.

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

Pittsburgh Pirates, A.J. Burnett