Jays give fans reason to celebrate

Jays give fans reason to celebrate

TORONTO -- John Gibbons knew what was coming. So when the Blue Jays manager strolled up the mound in the seventh inning Monday night, he made sure to deliver a message to A.J. Burnett.

"The first thing Gibby told me was, 'Get out of here and go enjoy that applause,'" Burnett said.

With those words in mind, the starter stepped off the hill and slowly made his way toward Toronto's dugout. As Burnett crossed the foul line, the sellout crowd inside Rogers Centre rose to its feet and honored the pitcher with a standing ovation. Burnett removed his hat and waved to the fans, acknowledging their cheers.

"I had chills all over," said Burnett, who helped guide Toronto to a 9-1 victory over Kansas City in the Jays' home opener. "It was great. I appreciated it."

Burnett (1-1) limited the Royals to just one run on three hits over 6 2/3 innings, but he did so without consistent command of his pitches. The right-hander wasn't able to completely harness his curveball, and he pitched himself into bases-loaded jams in both the second and third innings.

Even so, Burnett was able to work his way through the rough patches for the Jays (4-2). In the second, he induced a grounder off the bat of Kansas City catcher John Buck for an inning-ending double play. Then in the third, Burnett struck out third baseman Alex Gordon to end the inning. From there, Toronto's No. 2 starter retired 11 batters in a row, giving his offense ample time to up its advantage.

The lone run that Kansas City (2-5) scored came in the seventh inning, when Buck snapped the Royals' hitless streak by launching a homer over the wall in left field. By that time, though, the Jays had already scored eight runs.

"It's kind of hard to describe that outing, because [Burnett] was kind of in and out of a groove a few times," Gibbons said. "That just shows you what kind of arm he's got. Very few guys can get away with that. He was falling behind guys the majority of the night, but he was still overpowering."

Burnett's performance was a stark contrast to his first start of the season on Wednesday. In that outing, he allowed six runs on five hits in just two-plus innings in a loss to Detroit. The cold conditions in Detroit might've been to blame for his control issues, but Burnett steered clear of any excuses.

The pitcher said Monday that it was hard to shake thoughts of that last outing as he readied himself for his second trip to the mound -- a start that was greeted by 50,125 fans in Toronto.

"I forgot about it quickly, but then again, I didn't," Burnett said. "It's there in the back of your mind even though you're preparing for this one, because I know I'm better than that. I know how good I am."

The question that has followed Burnett throughout his career has been: How good can he actually be?

The win over the Royals upped Burnett's career record to 60-59, which is a mark that Toronto doesn't believe accurately depicts his potential. Burnett's nine years in the Majors have been riddled by eight stints on the disabled list, including two last season with an elbow injury.

Burnett, who signed a five-year, $55 million contract with the Jays two winters ago, cruised through Spring Training without any health issues. That marked just the third time in his career that he's been able to avoid the DL before Opening Day, and it's one reason why Gibbons believes big things could be in store for Burnett this season.

"He'd be one of the elite [pitchers] in the game," Gibbons said when asked how good Burnett could be if he consistently met his potential. "He'd be one of those guys who every year ... he's at the top of all the stats.

"I've got a good feeling. I think he's going to have a take-off year," Gibbons said. "I saw it last year when he came back [from injury]. I think he's found a good home [with Toronto], and I think that's going to help out."

Gibbons also pointed to Toronto's offense as another reason he thinks Burnett could have a breakout year. The Blue Jays' bats were out in force against the Royals, scoring nine runs on 14 hits, including at least one each by every member of the starting lineup.

Toronto first baseman Lyle Overbay capped a four-run second inning with a three-run double off Royals starter Odalis Perez (0-2), who lasted just 1 1/3 innings. Then in the fourth, Jays center fielder Vernon Wells added a solo homer off reliever Jason Standridge, who also yielded four runs.

"When our guys came out swinging like they did, it lifts us up so much," Burnett said. "You expect that from our guys. I hate to say that, and I know they don't think the pressure is put on them, but we expect to get four or five runs a game."

With the way Burnett is capable of pitching, Toronto's hitters know even a few runs can get the job done.

"When A.J. is on the mound, doing what he's doing," Jays second baseman Aaron Hill said, "you put a couple runs on the board and it's game over."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.