Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
After years of pitching for the small- market Florida Marlins and Toronto Blue Jays, A.J. Burnett finally made the leap to the big stage on December 18, 2008.
That was the day Burnett's reputation as a Boston Red Sox killer earned him a five-year, $82 million deal with the New York Yankees, the major league's most storied franchise.
New York thought it had just signed up for half-a-decade of righthanded pitching dominance, but Burnett's career with the Yankees never quite unfolded that way.
During his time in New York, Burnett probably had as many sleepless nights as anyone in the city that never sleeps. Though not as good as his 2008 campaign in Toronto, Burnett pitched decent enough for the Yankees during his first season in pinstripes (13-9, 4.04 ERA, 195 K's).
But 2010 turned out to be much worse for the veteran. Burnett totally imploded en route to a 15-loss/5.26 ERA season, his worst performance in 12 years in the major leagues. He was similarly unimpressive the next season, finishing the year with an 11-11 record and a 5.15 ERA in 33 appearances.
Burnett was then traded to the perennially underfunded and underachieving Pittsburgh Pirates this past offseason, presumably never to be heard from again.
Burnett's career with the Pirates was met with almost no expectations at all. Barely anybody remembered him on fantasy draft day, and those who did were quick to press the ignore button following the broken cheekbone Burnett suffered during the opening days of Spring Training.
The 35-year-old missed the first few weeks of the regular season while tending to his injury, but since then he has been one of the most reliable starters in all of fantasy baseball. Burnett has allowed three runs or fewer in 10 of his 11 starts this year, with the exception being his comically horrendous (well, maybe not for fantasy owners) outing on May 2 against St. Louis, when he was rocked for 12 runs and 12 hits in just two and two thirds innings.
Maybe Burnett ate some bad Thai food that day, or something like that.
What's even more incredible is that despite being backed by one of the league's most futile offenses, Burnett has actually registered seven wins so far in 2012. Since May 19, he has won six outings in a row for the Pirates, striking out 27 hitters and compiling an elite 2.17 ERA during that span.
Burnett has had a tendency to miss his targets in the past, but has definitely shown an improvement in that area this season. Though his walk numbers are still higher than they should be (he's averaging 2.18 per game), opponents are hitting only .244 against him, while his strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.42 is also better than it was a year ago. Batters hit .260 against Burnett in his final year in New York, and he posted a 2.08 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2011.
The former New York Mets eighth-round pick has been especially unbeatable in his home stadium. At PNC Park, Burnett is 4-0 with a 1.27 ERA and 36 strikeouts, while opponents have hit just .185 off him in his six home starts this season.
While expectations were very low for Burnett heading into 2012, the opposite was true for Tampa Bay rookie lefthander Matt Moore.
The 23-year-old pitched so tremendously for the Rays after being called up from Triple-A late last season that manager Joe Maddon named him the team's Game 1 starter against the Texas Rangers in the first round of the American League Playoffs. Moore entered 2012 as the heavy favorite for the AL Rookie of the Year Award, but so far his performance on the field hasn't matched the hype. He began the month of June with a 1-5 record, 4.76 ERA and a startling 28 walks in just 56.2 innings pitched.
Fantasy owners who dropped Moore after his disappointing start are seeing now that they could have made a huge mistake, however. Since the calendar turned to June, Moore has gone 3-0 with a 2.37 ERA in three starts. His outing last Friday against Miami may have been his most impressive game yet: Moore surrendered just one hit while striking out eight over seven shutout innings.
Moore's mid-90's fastball and 87-88 mph changeup have been blowing away hitters all year, but what's been really holding him back is his curveball.
When Moore is able to locate his breaking ball, it can be a very difficult pitch to hit. But in 2012, most of his curves have ended up either in the dirt (leading to his high walk totals) or in the happy zone (a big reason why lefties are hitting an unusually high .321 against him this season).
What was encouraging about Moore's start on Friday was that his curveball was actually working. The Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton and Gaby Sanchez both struck out on that pitch, and it seemed like the breaking ball was generating more swings and misses for Moore than it had all season.
Successful starting pitching can be affected by a number of different factors, and being comfortable has to be near the top of the list. Burnett and Moore may not be Cy Young candidates, but they both look to be in a groove right now and in fantasy, you can't ask for much more than that.
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