Burdi brings triple-digit heat: 'He looks amazing'

July 9th, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- Few Pirates players, if any, put together a stronger Spring Training showing than reliever . A week into Summer Camp, and it’s clear the hard-throwing righty didn’t let baseball’s shutdown slow him down.

“He looks amazing,” Jameson Taillon said. “No matter how many injuries this dude’s had, he still throws 100 mph. His slider’s still disgusting.”

Burdi’s fastball touched 100 mph in two of his first three spring outings, showing that he was ready to prove himself on the mound after a pair of devastating injuries. First came Tommy John surgery in May 2017, then the long road to recovery that ended with two big league appearances in September 2018. Then last April, after cracking the Pirates’ Opening Day roster, Burdi went down with what turned out to be a serious nerve injury that required season-ending surgery to relieve symptoms of neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome.

Either one of those injuries could have completely derailed Burdi’s career before it really even started. But he’s back on the mound now, throwing a triple-digit fastball and a swing-and-miss slider, with a chance to play a key role in the Pirates’ bullpen this season.

“It’s kind of having your back against the wall and being able to say, you know, I did it and fought through tough times,” said Burdi, 27. “And now, it’s time to get rolling and get a full season under my belt -- what of this season [there] is -- and kind of get going.”

Before committing to this season, though, Burdi had to decide if he was going to play at all. He and his wife, Rebecca, are expecting their first child in December. Several players, especially those with pregnant spouses, have openly wondered if it’s worth putting their family at risk by playing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Burdi said he never thought about sitting out this season, and though he expressed some concerns about the recent delays other teams have experienced in receiving COVID-19 test results, he praised the Pirates’ medical staff for creating a safe and healthy environment. But just to be safe, Rebecca remained at home while Burdi reported to PNC Park.

“There’s definitely a little more caution on my side,” Burdi said. “We decided we would take these few weeks, see how testing went, how numbers were, how everything is kind of being resolved and, when we feel it’s kind of safe enough, have her come to Pittsburgh.”

In the meantime, Burdi will continue preparing for what he hopes will be his first full season in the Majors. He spent the past few months working out at Hop’s Athletic Performance in Coventry, R.I., under the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Matt Hopkins and pitching coach John DeRouin.

Burdi threw bullpen sessions using a Rapsodo pitching monitor, lifted weights several times per week and broke down his delivery to address movements that might have put unnecessary stress on his neck and elbow. To make sure Burdi maintained his new mechanics in game-like situations, speakers with music blaring were set up next to him as he threw.

“The biggest thing for Burdi was just to be healthy,” manager Derek Shelton said. “What I heard about how good the stuff was, how electric the arm is, it’s just making that we harness that and keep that. Because he wants to throw, and he’s going to continue to pitch.”

Taillon knows a thing or two about making the most of setbacks, as he’s overcome two Tommy John surgeries and testicular cancer, and he has been blown away as much by Burdi’s work ethic as the powerful pitches that come out of his right hand.

“When you get hurt, you have two choices,” Taillon said. “You can either feel sorry for yourself and do the minimal work required to get back on the field, or you can take it the other way and say, ‘I’m getting hurt for a reason. There is something I need to clean up, there’s something I need to attack, there’s something I can get better at.’ Burdi takes that [second] route every time.

“It’s pretty inspiring to watch him work. He finds a way to get better. It sounds kind of cliché, but through every injury and obstacle he’s had, he just attacks something new, doesn’t complain and focuses on getting better. He’s in a really good spot.”