<
>

Marlins decide road return vs. Mets is best

MIAMI -- A.J. Burnett was on the field with the Florida Marlins plenty of times last year.

As a cheerleader, mostly.

Florida's improbable World Series title was achieved pretty much
without Burnett, considered by many to be the team's most gifted
pitcher.

The tattooed and body-pierced right-hander, whose 2003 season
ended in April because of elbow reconstruction surgery, begins his
major league comeback Thursday night when he's set to start for
Florida at the New York Mets.

"It's important to me to get out there and pitch with these
guys," Burnett said. "This team's come a long way since I got
hurt. Guys have gotten a lot better over the last couple years.
Thursday is going to mean more to me pitching for them, than me
just going out there to pitch."

Burnett last pitched in the majors on April 25 last year, and
had elbow ligament replacement surgery four days later. He hasn't
won since a three-hit shutout over San Francisco on Aug. 18, 2002.

He made no secret that he'd have preferred starting his comeback
before a home crowd, but Marlins manager Jack McKeon had other
ideas.

"That's too bad. He's pitching in New York," said McKeon, who
was hired two weeks after Burnett stopped pitching last season.
"What's the difference where you pitch?"

There were two major factors in McKeon's decision. He saw the
benefit of using Burnett against the Mets -- a heavily right-handed
lineup -- than against Wednesday's opponent, Cincinnati, a team with
plenty of left-handed power. And there were concerns Burnett would
have too much adrenalin if he made his debut at home.

"It'll be good to be back out there, whether I'm at home or on
the road," said Burnett, who was 12-9 with a 3.30 ERA, 203
strikeouts and five shutouts in 2002. He threw a no-hitter at San
Diego in 2001.

His comeback comes at an opportune time for Florida, which has
another star right-hander, World Series MVP Josh Beckett, on the
disabled list for at least another 11 days because of a blister on
the middle finger of his pitching hand.

By mid-June, Florida could have all its aces -- Burnett, Beckett,
Carl Pavano, Brad Penny and Dontrelle Willis -- finally in the same
rotation. In theory, that would give Florida even a better starting
five than the one that carried the Marlins to last year's World
Series title.

"Going through this made A.J. work harder," said Willis, who
was an offseason training partner of Burnett's. "He's very eager
to get out there and perform. And I'm excited to see him and see
him healthy."

Burnett said McKeon, pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal, president
David Samson and general manager Larry Beinfest were split on
whether they thought the three rehab starts he made in the minors
this spring were good enough to merit a return to the majors.

He allowed seven hits and four earned runs for Triple-A
Albuquerque last Friday night. He struck out six, walked two and
gave up a home run, throwing fastballs mostly between 94 and 96
mph.

"Just because I'm not throwing 97 to 100, striking everybody
out like I did in 2002, Larry and David are wondering what's wrong
with me," Burnett said. "But they haven't come down and watched
one bullpen. They haven't come down and watched me once in a game.
... So they have no idea if I'm ready."

McKeon insisted he didn't have to do a lot of lobbying to get
Burnett back in the rotation.

"It wasn't a tough decision," McKeon said. "We weighed all
the angles. We came to the conclusion that he's ready."