Why A.J. Burnett may have big season

A.J. Burnett had a big year with the Blue Jays in 2008 with Rod Barajas catching him. Brad Barr/US Presswire

Andrew McCutchen is laughing, shaking his head in disbelief. "It’s just another hat," he says during a spring training interview.

I tell him maybe he doesn’t understand how special these hats were. I tell him I realize they are ridiculous looking hats but seriously, what if they had magical powers? Would he wear the 1979 Pirates pillbox hat if it meant the current Pirates would bring a World Series championship to Steel City?

McCutchen still wasn’t buying it.

"Obviously that’s not going to make it happen," McCutchen said. "We’ve worn them in the past."

Although baseball players are notoriously superstitious, McCutchen is right; it takes a lot more than a special cap to win a World Series.

The Pirates begin a seven-game road trip tonight against the Braves. The last time the Pirates were in Atlanta they entered that late July series in 2011 tied for first place in the NL Central. After four games, 47 innings and one bad call by umpire Jerry Meals, they left Atlanta 1.5 games back, spiraled through losing the next 10 consecutive games and ended the season 72-90.

McCutchen said this season they are not going to focus on what happened to their team after Atlanta last year. Sure, they’ll remember it. But only as motivation to be more focused in 2012.

"I feel like if we can focus on day by day the sky is going to be the limit for us," McCutchen said back in late March.

One of the key offseason moves to forget the second half of 2011 was acquiring A.J. Burnett, who makes his second start tonight, facing off against the Braves' Tommy Hanson.

Recalling the conversations the Pirates had when they first began thinking about Burnett, manager Clint Hurdle said they started looking at his career, his history, the years Burnett pitched well. In 2008 for the Toronto Blue Jays, Burnett went 18-10, had a 4.07 ERA and a career-high 231 strikeouts. His catcher in Toronto? Rod Barajas.

"We called Rod once we knew we were getting A.J.," Hurdle said. "A.J. spoke volumes of the relationship that he had with Rod."

Barajas said over the last few years he and Burnett would talk every so often -- Burnett would call and ask for his input as to how he was pitching. Barajas believes the pitcher and catcher relationship to be the most important in all of baseball.

After being activated from the disabled list last Saturday (following surgery to repair a fractured orbital bone when hit in the face bunting in spring training), Burnett threw seven strong innings, giving up three hits to the St. Louis Cardinals and earning his first win of 2012. While it is only one game, it is interesting to note 70 percent of Burnett’s pitches were in the strike zone. If Burnett goes back to his 2008 form Barajas’ impact on Burnett will speak volumes.

"We kind of go back to what he did well that year," Barajas said of looking at Burnett’s years in Toronto. "It’s awesome, already having that relationship built up. It should put him at ease."

Burnett is just one piece of the puzzle for the Pirates. Sure, it is only April, but teams have to start somewhere and the Pirates' pitching staff is off to a great start.

They have allowed only 51 runs (second-fewest in the majors, behind the Washington Nationals' 48 runs) and they have a 2.58 ERA -- lower than the Rangers, Cardinals or Phillies.

Unfortunately, the Pirates' offense is off to a terrible start, thus the 8-10 record. They are last in the majors with only 41 runs scored. The Pirates have to find a way to get their offense going.

Shortstop Clint Barmes said this comes down to realizing how important every game is. Baseball is crazy that way, the entire season -- complete joy or agony -- can come down to one game.

"It’s taking the mentality of showing up every day, every game is big, every game is important," Barmes said. "As soon as you relax or sit back on your heels in this game it will find you in all aspects. ... The good teams find a way to get out of [struggles] a little quicker than the other teams."

How can the Pirates accomplish this?

The last time the Pirates won the World Series was 1979. According to Paul Lukas who writes the Uni Watch column for ESPN’s Fandom blog, the Pirates wore the pillbox cap from 1976 through 1986. So, McCutchen was right --- the pillbox caps were not the superstitious key to winning the World Series in 1979.

However, something else interesting happened in 1979. Willie Stargell, now Hall of Famer and then team leader, gave teammates gold stars for outstanding performances throughout the year. The team became one big family. Their team theme song in 1979: "We are Fam-i-ly!"

The Pirates have laid groundwork this year where the team can turn into a family -- from signing McCutchen, a team-oriented guy, to reuniting Burnett and Barajas. Maybe they'll have the capacity to address struggles better than they did last year.

"When you get a group of guys in a clubhouse that can pick each other up, you’re enjoying coming in the clubhouse," Barmes said of his teammates this year. "Not every team I’ve played on has been like that. But when you have that, it makes a big difference throughout a full season."

Of course, it is hard to identify if winning games builds good chemistry or if good chemistry leads to wins, but we know the stories from the teams who have experienced it. In a way, part of the magic of the 1979 Pirates really was in "Stargell’s stars" placed on those crazy pillbox caps.

If the Pirates give general manager Neal Huntington some money to improve the team before the trade deadline, what should he spend it on first?

That’s easy to answer: Amazon.com sells iron-on gold stars for cheap.

Anna McDonald contributes to the SweetSpot blog on ESPN.com's Playbook section. Follow her on Twitter.