On the surface, new Yankees CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett could be considered an odd pairing.
There's Burnett, 32, the soft-spoken power pitcher who lives for strikeouts like his childhood idol, Nolan Ryan. The lean Little Rock, Ark., native who used to live on the wild side has matured quite a bit — off the field and on the mound, where he has been dominant at times, yet still deals with questions about his durability (10 stints on the disabled list).
Then there's Sabathia, 28, the joyful California-cool southpaw, whose wide smile and football-player build make him a presence in any clubhouse. Sabathia's Herculean effort during the stretch drive for the Brewers last season — making several starts on short rest — gave him an aura of invincibility.
But the two have found they have more in common than just their tattooed arms.
"We're both laid-back cats," Burnett said, grinning. "If he had an idea, I'd be game for it."
And they both love pitching in big games, which is why they signed with the Yankees, who are betting a combined $243.5 million that Burnett and Sabathia are a perfect match to bring them their first World Series title since 2000.
"I'm definitely excited to be playing on this big stage," said Sabathia, whose seven-year, $161 million deal is the largest for a pitcher in MLB history. "I'm definitely glad I've got a guy like A.J. that we can walk into this together, and we can lean on each other. We just laugh about that stuff. It's good to have somebody to bounce that off."
Burnett bounced back from some injury-plagued seasons to have one of the best years of his career in 2008, when he went 18-10 with the Blue Jays and led the American League in starts and strikeouts. Burnett said he gleaned a lot from Roy Halladay about mound presence and preparation between starts, pointing out he doesn't feel like he has to light up the radar gun with every throw.
Though Burnett has topped 200 innings only three times in his 10-year career, it has gone up the past three seasons, when he has been a beast against AL East teams (19-7 with a 3.29 ERA in 34 starts).
"I learned my lesson in Toronto when I went there and tried to do too much after my last contract," said Burnett, who signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal in December. "I'm pretty much just going to be me and pitch. If I stay healthy and take the ball every five days, that will speak for itself."
Sabathia had the mentality of seemingly taking the ball every day last season for the Brewers, when he strapped the club's playoff hopes on his back, ending a 26-year postseason drought by making his last three starts on three days' rest. Though some worried about injuries — especially entering free agency — Sabathia "felt unbelievable."
"I had to turn my phone off to block my calls from my agent (Greg Genske), because he was freaking out," Sabathia said. "He was pretty upset. But like I said, I felt fine and I wanted to win. I think anybody healthy enough in that situation would have done the same thing."
Sabathia and Burnett join Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte and Joba Chamberlain to form a formidable rotation that Burnett said, "has no back end," and one that veteran catcher Jorge Posada said reminds him of the team's glory years of the 1990s.
"Knowing we have a guy that we have a chance to win with every night, that's special," Posada said. "Think of the years that we won, we had a five-man rotation. We understand we had a chance to win every night. And that's important to know the offense doesn't really have to score six runs or seven runs to win games. It was something that we needed."