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Bucs' Burnett happy with progress, hopes to return before late April

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist
BRADENTON, Fla. -- There is a small red blotch under his right eye. From the outside, that's all the visual evidence that remains of the Bunt That Mugged A.J. Burnett last month.

Burnett is hoping the visual evidence in favor of pushing it further back into the recesses of history starts to stack up a little more quickly, too: After throwing batting practice Saturday, he's set to pitch a simulated game Tuesday morning.

The Pirates continue to maintain it will be late April or early May until he joins their rotation. But Burnett is pushing for way sooner than that -- despite his sense of humor to the contrary.

"I joke around with them every day and say, 'You know, my schedule is just in pencil,'" Burnett said Monday evening. "But batting practice went great Saturday.

"We'll see how it goes from that."

Biggest thing, in Burnett's mind, is to get his pitch count up. How quickly that goes will determine how quickly he will be activated. In a perfect Pirates' world, Burnett and Erik Bedard will provide veteran leadership for a rotation that needs to pitch deep into games for Pittsburgh to turn last year's surprising four-month start into a full-season party.

Joking that he's "too old to feel sorry for myself", Burnett, 35, has kept after it in the weight room, hitting and, yes, even bunting since returning from surgery.

His teammates have been impressed with his attitude, both in the not-feeling-sorry-for-himself department and with his blending in as a teammate.

"Great guy and great teammate," Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones said. "I feel like he fits into this clubhouse already. Coming from a team like the Yankees, bringing that stigma with him, he's fit right in."

Not sure if Jones and some others figured that Burnett would be arriving at practice each day in a stretch limo, Yankee-like, or what. But Burnett has been just a regular Joe while waiting on ice for the day he can pitch for Pittsburgh.

"He's definitely taking control of the younger pitchers, kicking them in the butt when they've needed it," Jones said. "He's definitely been a leader."

Burnett shrugged off any woe-is-me stuff.

"You take your licks in this game," he said. "I got home to be with my family for a week. Obviously, I'd rather have stayed here and not gotten hit in the face.

"But I got home for my 11-year-old's birthday. I haven't been able to do that in 10 years."

Little A.J. Jr., and his brother Ashton, 7, no doubt were happy to see their dad. But everyone will be happier when he's recovered from the eye injury and back on the mound.

Burnett knows this, and he appreciates that the Pirates are so eager.

"That's the way I look at it," he said. "I enjoyed my time with the Yankees. But my time there is done.

"The fact that they wanted me wearing black and gold ... it's good to be wanted."

He's already gotten a taste of how good things could be in Pittsburgh, one of America's greatest sports cities, if the Pirates can break through and start winning. When he and his wife, Karen, were there last month for A.J.'s surgery, they saw it up close.

"When I was up and about, we went to a few places for lunch and I saw it before they even figured out who I was," Burnett said. "Of course, it didn't take long for them to figure it out, seeing a guy with a big, black eye and sunglasses. But even before that, people were excited."

A.J. and Karen mostly dined near PNC Park, and over and over they heard "how good it was, how that run last year brought the fans back in Pittsburgh."

Burnett is hoping to contribute to that ... and he's hoping to do it far sooner than late April.

Sunblock Day? Like clockwork. In the 80s. Hot. Sunny. Extra sunblock, baby.

Likes: The mid-day drive over the Sunshine Skyway when the sun is shining and the Tampa Bay is sparkling for miles. Spectacular view, one of the many beautiful sights in the country. ... McKechnie Field in Bradenton, always a joy to watch a game here. ... Bob Seger's Rock and Roll Never Forgets blasting during batting practice Monday night. ... Mixon's Fruit Farm in Bradenton. Incredible juice, delicious orange swirl ice cream cones made with Mixon's orange juice. Great stuff. Love stopping by whenever I'm in Bradenton. ... The TV truck with the Big Ten Network logos parked here. Wow, the Pirates really are on the verge of breaking out. ... Took advantage of a rare morning off Monday (night game in Bradenton) and went for one of the best -- and only -- runs I've had in weeks. Finally, after three-and-a-half weeks, this nagging oblique strain appears to be nearly healed. ... Thanks, as usual, to the Jefferson High Dragons in Tampa for allowing me to use their track on that run. ... Talking rock 'n' roll with Clint Hurdle, Pirates manager. The latest he's listening to: Nikki and Rich. I made a note to check them out.

Dislikes: Can't think of a thing today. Beautiful weather, everybody's in a good mood because opening day is around the corner and they get to go home soon ... and, hey, the Mixon's ice cream cone will erase even the darkest clouds.

Rock 'n' Roll Lyric of the Day:

"Get a job, save your money, listen to Jane
"Everybody knows umbrellas will cost more in the rain
"All the news is bad
"Is there any other kind?
"Everybody's talking at the same time
"Well it's hard times for some
"For others it's sweet
"Someone makes money when there's blood in the street
"Don't take any lip
"Stay in line
"Everybody's talking at the same time."

-- Tom Waits, Talking at the Same Time
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