A.J. Burnett turned out to be the ageless wonder the Pirates were hoping he would be when he came to Pittsburgh in 2012.
In two seasons as a Pirate, the right-hander went 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA, and he played a huge role in the resurrection of a franchise that went 21 years without a playoff appearance before last season. On Sunday, Burnett will return to the hill at PNC Park for the first time since he joined the Phillies, and he will be opposing a former pupil of his.
"Coming here and coming to a place where there was a young crew and being one of the older guys, I still give all my thanks to the guys in that locker room and what they thought of me from day one, and even today," Burnett said. "We stay in touch. It's a special group."
Now in his 16th season, the Major League veteran expects a mixed reaction when he toes the rubber on Sunday.
"The city took me in," he said, "and they got a right to boo. And they got a right to cheer, too."
Burnett is still going strong at 37 years old. He owns a 5-7 record with a 3.92 ERA in 117.0 innings pitched for the last-place Phillies. He allowed six hits and four runs (three earned) with four walks and 10 strikeouts in six innings against the Marlins in his latest outing.
As if returning to the city he called home for two years was not a big enough storyline, Burnett will pitch against close friend and mentee, Jeff Locke.
It will be a special occasion for Locke, dueling Burnett, a guy he idolized during their two seasons as teammates. Locke has been someone to admire since his return from Triple-A: He has turned in quality starts in each of his past five outings and has a sparkling 1.01 WHIP and 26/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 41 2/3 innings.
Pirates: Role of cleanup hitter in flux
The cleanup spot in the lineup has been a revolving door for the Bucs in recent weeks.
Pedro Alvarez was removed from the No. 4 hole in late May, and the slot has since been primarily filled by platooning the left-handed Ike Davis and the right-handed Gaby Sanchez at first base. However, after Neil Walker came off the disabled list (appendectomy) on June 24, six of the switch-hitting second baseman's next 10 starts came in the cleanup role.
Davis was slotted fourth in the Pirates' starting order for the 26th time this season Saturday against Phillies right-hander David Buchanan, while Walker was getting the day off.
"We've tried a couple different number fours," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said before Saturday's game. "I like the lineup the way it is now, but Walker is getting a day today, so we'll tweak it a little bit. The nice thing about these guys is they're tweak-able."
While Hurdle continues to make adjustments, the Pirates' numbers for the No. 4 spot are among the worst in baseball this season. Regardless of who's penciled in the cleanup spot, the Bucs' .214 average and .639 OPS from that position in the lineup both ranked 28th in the Majors entering Saturday.
Phillies: Utley looks like an All-Star
Chase Utley was expected to be named the starting second baseman for the National League All-Star team on Sunday.
Utley had a commanding lead in the final voting update last week. It would be his sixth time elected an All-Star starter but his first since 2010. He has been plagued by injuries the past few seasons.
"He's really taken care of his body; he's been in great shape," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. "He really pays attention to that. It's allowed him to play numerous games and put together a season being out there playing every day that justifies being voted into the All-Star Game."
• The Pirates claimed infielder Dean Anna off waivers from the Yankees on Saturday and assigned him to Triple-A Indianapolis. Anna, 27, played 12 games for New York in April, hitting .136. He was optioned to Triple-A on April 24, the level where he spent all of last season in San Diego's farm system.
• Left-hander Francisco Liriano is on schedule to make a rehab start for Triple-A Indianapolis on Monday. Liriano, who has been sidelined with a strained left oblique since June 10, threw a 73-pitch simulated game on Wednesday.
• Phillies starters combined for just 21 wins in 86 games this season, which tied Cleveland for the fewest in the big leagues. It has not helped that Phillies starters were tied for 18th in quality starts (44), but they also had the third-worst run support in baseball.
Erik Bacharach is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.