NEW YORK - Paul Bako still remembers the one and only time he caught A.J. Burnett in a major league start. It was 2000. Burnett was a 23-year-old flamethrower, one of several young pitching prospects breaking into the big leagues with the Florida Marlins. Bako was a 28-year-old catcher whom the Astros had shipped to the Marlins after the first game of the season.
Burnett was making his first start of the season for the Marlins. Bako, it turns out, was making his last.
But for one game, the second of a doubleheader against the Braves, the two players combined for what at that point was the most impressive pitching performance of Burnett's sprouting career.
In seven innings, he allowed one run on three hits, striking out six and walking two.
"His stuff was phenomenal," Bako said. "It was just a matter of him making pitches, which I think it rings true for him now."
When the Phillies square off against Burnett tonight in Game 2 of the World Series, they know they will be facing a pitcher with no-hit stuff, a 32-year-old righthander who held the Twins and Angels to just three runs on six hits in 12 1/3 innings of his first two postseason starts. In May 2008 at Citizens Bank Park, while still a member of the Blue Jays, Burnett held the Phillies to two runs on four hits while striking out eight in 6 1/3 innings of a 6-3 Toronto win.
But the Phillies also know the other side of Burnett, the side that rears its ugly head when, like Bako pointed out, he isn't making pitches. Their team of advance scouts saw it in Game 5 of this year's American League Championship Series against the Angels, when he allowed the first five batters to reach base, including a double by Bobby Abreu, a two-run single by Torii Hunter, an RBI double by Vladimir Guerrero, and an RBI single by Kendry Morales. The Phillies' lineup saw it in May at Yankee Stadium, when Jayson Werth, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz all homered off him en route to a 7-3 win.
"I think we know what he's got," manager Charlie Manuel said. "He's pitched against us before quite a bit. His best game is his command. If he's got command of his pitches, then he's tough on that day. That's kind of how I look at it. When he's on, he's on, and he'll more than likely pitch a good game, unless we really get to him and score runs on him."
When the Yankees signed Burnett to a 5-year, $82.5 deal in the offseason, they were betting that he would be on more often than not. During the regular season, he went 13-9 with a 4.04 ERA with 195 strikeouts in 207 innings. But he also walked 97 batters, most among American League pitchers. He threw at least six innings and allowed fewer than four runs in seven of his final 12 starts of the regular season. But he allowed at least six runs in three others.
Which is what makes tonight's matchup with righthander Pedro Martinez so difficult to forecast. The Phillies are a patient team that feasts on pitchers with shaky command. But patience often doesn't pay when a starter is consistently throwing strikes.
Yesterday, Burnett spoke about his Game 5 ALCS start against the Angels, when he was charged with six runs on eight hits and three walks in six innings.
"I think they made an adjustment on me last time," Burnett said. "When I first faced them, they were pretty patient from the first inning on, and [in the second start] they came out attacking from the get-go. And I'm a guy that needs to get ahead with strike one, so I'm not really trying to be too fine. But maybe after that start I realized maybe early on I might be a little finer as opposed to just getting ahead. I won't change anything as far as my plan or my attack, just maybe not be so careless from the get-go, just throwing balls over the middle to get strike one."
The dance between Burnett and the Phillies lineup will be fascinating to watch. How Burnett controls his own game will have as much to do with the outcome as how the Phillies control him.
Bako, a lefthanded hitter who has yet to take an at-bat this postseason, likely won't have much of a role. But he'll nevertheless get a chance to see just how much his former Marlins teammate has matured.
"I mean, I don't think his stuff is any lesser, to be honest with you," said Bako, who was traded to the Braves 1 day after catching Burnett's start against them in 2000. "He's overcome some injuries and it looks like the ball is coming out just as good now as it was then. He was young and he was green and the world, his future, was ahead of him. He had a very bright future and it was really just up to him to harness that, and obviously he's done a pretty good job of that."