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Burnett's gem leads Jays to sweep

Burnett's gem leads Jays to sweep

TORONTO -- There are plenty of times when A.J. Burnett turns into a big kid inside Toronto's clubhouse. He was at it again on Tuesday, running around the room with a toy gun and seeking out various targets for a stream of foam darts.

A few of the innocent victims during Burnett's harmless attack were the kids of the Blue Jays' rotation -- pitchers called upon to fill in the gaps for a depleted staff. Similarly, Burnett has been forced into the role of Toronto's temporary ace, while right-hander Roy Halladay sits on the 15-day disabled list.

While the fun-loving Burnett tries to fill in as the leader of the rotation, though, the younger starters are sure to keep an eye on how he handles the responsibility. More and more, Burnett's job description includes leading by example -- an idea that initially causes a smirk to appear on his face.

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"I don't know if that's a good example or a bad example," joked Burnett, who turned in a dominating complete-game performance to lead Toronto to a 2-1 victory over Baltimore at Rogers Centre on Wednesday.

As far as his teammates are concerned, it can be a great example. Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells sees a difference in Burnett this season over last. Wells believes the main reason behind the change is simply that Burnett is healthy this year. Last season, which was Burnett's first with Toronto, the right-hander missed two months with a right elbow injury.

"When he got hurt last year, it was just frustrating for him, because he couldn't do what he wanted to do," Wells said. "I think now that he's back, he's leading more by example with what he wants to do when he goes out on that mound. It's good for younger guys to see how he's handling himself right now."

Against the Orioles, Burnett (4-3) used an overpowering curveball and his blazing fastball to tally 10 strikeouts, the same total he collect against the Devil Rays in his previous trip to the hill for the Jays (18-22). It marked the first time in Burnett's career that he fanned at least 10 in consecutive starts. Burnett needed just 103 pitches to polish off his first complete game of the season and 17th of his career.

After walking Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada with two outs in the ninth inning, Burnett struck out Aubrey Huff to end the game. Burnett's performance was one out longer than the gem turned in by Jays rookie Jesse Litsch on Tuesday -- a fact that the veteran made sure to point out after sealing the win.

"I actually came in here and made a joke," Burnett said with a grin. "I said, 'That's how you finish it off, rook.' They all got a kick out of that."

All jokes aside, Burnett made sure to also credit the recent outings of the junior members of the starting staff, which has helped Toronto win five of its last six after a nine-game losing streak. Over the last six games, the Blue Jays' starters have gone 3-0 with a 2.20 ERA and three no-decisions.

Litsch turned in the longest outing by a Toronto starter making his debut on Tuesday, when he lasted 8 2/3 innings in a win over the Orioles (18-23). On Sunday, right-hander Shaun Marcum provided Toronto with six innings of no-hit baseball before a limited pitch count forced him out of the game.

"We all know who Roy is around here, but with him down, I'm doing my [best] to keep us right in it until we get him back," Burnett said. "But it's not just me. It's the young kid [Litsch] yesterday. It's Shaun Marcum. It's the defense that we play and the chemistry of this clubhouse that keeps this team winning.

"We've got such good kids here -- a good team," he added. "Marcum, Litsch and [Dustin] McGowan, they're fun guys to watch and they're going to be here a while. They're not going anywhere. They've shown they can pitch here and [they'll] hold the fort down."

Burnett was able to work with just two runs of support to do his part in that regard on Wednesday, when his lone miscue came via a leadoff solo homer by Baltimore's Kevin Millar in the third inning. Toronto third baseman Troy Glaus scored on an RBI base hit by Aaron Hill in the fourth, and added a run-scoring single of his own off lefty Brian Burres (1-2) in the fifth to put the Jays ahead, 2-1.

That proved to be enough for Burnett, who has two wins and 20 strikeouts in the 15 2/3 innings he's worked since Halladay landed on the DL after an emergency appendectomy on Friday. Still, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons wasn't going to buy into the thought that losing the ace pitcher was the only reason Burnett has been pitching so well.

"He's out there competing every night, regardless if Doc's around or not," Gibbons said. "[Burnett] is one of the dominating guys in baseball. You're not going to find anyone with a better arm. When he's got everything going, that's exactly what he can do to you."

Wells believes Burnett's success is essential for the Jays, though.

"He's going to have to pick up the slack with Doc out," Wells said. "The fun part about watching A.J. pitch is he can be electric on any given night. It was fun to watch tonight."

The kids surely took notice.

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

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