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Finder: Pirates prospect awfully good now

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

ALTOONA -- This was truly Awful. Autograph tables were arranged for such celebrities as The Guy Who Mows The Grass. Tang, what the astronauts drank in the days of yore, was available at concession stands. Worse still, they actually sold out of the cheeseburgers made of spam, spam, spam, spam ... sorry, got stuck in a Monty Python moment there.

Akron batter’s names and faces were mangled, transforming Luke Scott into a Lock Scoot accompanied by Michael Jackson’s gloved visage next to his name on the videoboard. And the sound system played anything from William Shatner’s rendition of “Rocket Man” -- talk about a bad rap -- to the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You”

But, you know, I loved the sumo ballet.

It was far more entertaining than the ballet production of “The Great Gatsby” once inflicted upon Heinz Hall.

This was Awful Night, at least how the tortured minds in the Altoona Curve’s front office envision it.

And, as Curve pitcher Sean Burnett put it succinctly late last night from underneath Blair County Ballpark: “Uh, it was Awful.

“It was pretty funny. They had some funny things on the board. Some of our interns were dressed in weird costumes. That’s a bad title on the day you’re pitching, but hopefully I did all right.”

The true shame of it was, Burnett failed to come dressed as his usual Awesome self.

Which ruined the Awful/Awesome angle anticipated for this column. But, what the heck, this 20-year-old, left-handed starting pitcher is a work in progress.

Last night he was the pitcher of record in a 5-2 Curve victory in a Class AA Eastern League game. He went just five innings, tying his second-shortest outing of the season and following closely his shortest yet, a four-inning stinker Wednesday. He allowed 11 earned runs in his previous 17 innings before the Akron Aeros, or Arrows on last night’s scoreboard, got eight hits and two earned runs off him in those five innings.

Despite all that, one of the league’s youngest players became its first pitcher this season to win 11 games -- he’s 11-3. Despite all that, Burnett still ranks among the league’s top five with a 2.61 ERA and has won five consecutive decisions and nine of his past 10.

For an organization searching for hope, Pirates fans should look no further than 98 miles from PNC Park.

This struggling kid is an All-Star among the Awfulness, in Altoona and around the Pirates.

“His control has been a little erratic for him,” Curve coach John Wehner said. “Still ... ”

For Burnett, his erratic is better than most other guys’ pinpoint.

The Aeros/Arrows forced him to throw 90 pitches with a nail injury on the middle finger of his pitching hand lifting and hurting with every Curve/Kerv ball. It is the third dominating pitch that Burnett added for this season, his fourth pro summer since the Pirates made him the 19th selection in the first round of the 2000 amateur draft. Curve Manager Dale Sveum considers the malady a problem, even if Burnett doesn’t.

“You got learning points in your career,” Burnett, 20, said maturely, and Sveum took the opportunity last night to teach him a few.

“His last couple of outings, guys have been diving at the outside part of the plate and driving balls to right field,” Sveum said.

Right fielder Shawn Garrett made a couple of dandy throws, one on a sprinting catch to right-center field followed by a dart to double off an Aeros/Arrows baserunner. The Altoona bats rapped 10 hits in support of Burnett. And the struggling kid won again, with less-than-Burnett stuff and that nasty nail.

“They hit me pretty hard,” said Burnett, an All-Star at every level thus far as a pro. “But I was able to get out of some situations and only put two runs on the board.”

So that wasn’t so bad, on a night replete with “Burn Baby Burn” disco music and purposefully bad singers and salutes to woeful sports teams, dishonoring everyone from the 1962 Mets to any stripe of the modern-day Cincinnati Bungles.

Batman and Robin, Superman and Supergirl threw out the ceremonial first pitches, but the best of the worst of Burnett was good enough for the 4,845 lucky/unlucky customers last night.

You would enjoy Burnett on most any night.

Sorry you had to read about him when even this column was befittingly Awful.

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.

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