A.J. Burnett enjoying a renaissance in Pittsburgh

A.J. Burnett of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches in A.J. Burnett of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches in the first inning against the Mets. (July 13, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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ST. LOUIS - A.J. Burnett reached for the scruff that covered his chin and smiled. The look wouldn't have played with the Yankees, who maintain their long-standing prohibition on facial hair.

But with these Pirates -- where the pitcher believes he can be "a little more A.J." -- Burnett blends right in. Perhaps it's why the once embattled Yankees righthander has thrived since his trade from the Bronx before the 2012 season.

"To experience that and go through all of that, that's one of the greatest, toughest places to play," said Burnett, who starts for the Pirates Thursday night against the Cardinals in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. "And I made it through it."

Burnett's three seasons with the Yankees were filled with some peaks and mostly valleys.

In 2009, he saved the Yankees' chances to eventually win the World Series, throwing a gem in Game 2 to answer Cliff Lee's masterpiece in Game 1. But for much of the remainder of his time in pinstripes, Burnett fought the burden of expectations, amplified by the five-year, $82.5-million contract lavished upon him by the Yankees.

In New York, Burnett went 34-35 with a 4.79 ERA, which hastened his eventual departure.

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After all of his ups and downs, Burnett was traded in 2012 to the Pirates, who agreed to take on $13 million of the $20 million that remained on his salary. The investment has proved sound for the energized Pirates, who have returned to the playoffs after 21 years.

In his new surroundings, the 36-year-old Burnett has posted a 26-21 mark in two seasons with a 3.41 ERA. His 3.30 ERA this season was his lowest since 2002 with the Marlins.

With the Pirates, Burnett's postseason pedigree stands out, part of the reason he will take the ball Thursday night.

"A.J.'s pitched in big venues," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's pitched meaningful games late season, postseason . . . I'm very confident in A.J.'s abilities and demeanor, so I don't anticipate any restrictions from A.J. or any complications due to the crowd."

Burnett has pitched in hostile environments -- sometimes before his own home fans -- an experience he plans to draw upon again against the Cardinals. Of course, this run through the postseason is different.

"The main thing is over in New York it's expected every year, you know?" said Burnett, who will team up with his former Yankees batterymate, Russell Martin. "You tend to get in there a couple weeks before the season ends, and this one was more of a 'shock the world.' We're going to do it. We made it."

With the Yankees, Burnett concedes he was focused too much on living up to the expectations of his contract, an effort that proved futile. Upon his arrival in Pittsburgh, Burnett said he shifted his focus on just pitching.

The result has been a post-pinstriped renaissance.

"I take my experiences over there, the good and the bad," Burnett said. "And I've learned a lot from being in New York and I will cherish every moment of that. I think that's made me who I am today, for sure."

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