MIAMI -- A.J. Burnett was on the field with the Florida Marlins plenty of times last year.
As a cheerleader, mostly.
Florida's improbable World Series title was achieved pretty much without Burnett, considered by many to be the team's most gifted pitcher.
The tattooed and body-pierced right-hander, whose 2003 season ended in April because of elbow reconstruction surgery, begins his major league comeback Thursday night when he's set to start for Florida at the New York Mets.
"It's important to me to get out there and pitch with these guys," Burnett said. "This team's come a long way since I got hurt. Guys have gotten a lot better over the last couple years. Thursday is going to mean more to me pitching for them, than me just going out there to pitch."
Burnett last pitched in the majors on April 25 last year, and had elbow ligament replacement surgery four days later. He hasn't won since a three-hit shutout over San Francisco on Aug. 18, 2002.
He made no secret that he'd have preferred starting his comeback before a home crowd, but Marlins manager Jack McKeon had other ideas.
"That's too bad. He's pitching in New York," said McKeon, who was hired two weeks after Burnett stopped pitching last season. "What's the difference where you pitch?"
There were two major factors in McKeon's decision. He saw the benefit of using Burnett against the Mets - a heavily right-handed lineup - than against Wednesday's opponent, Cincinnati, a team with plenty of left-handed power. And there were concerns Burnett would have too much adrenalin if he made his debut at home.
"It'll be good to be back out there, whether I'm at home or on the road," said Burnett, who was 12-9 with a 3.30 ERA, 203 strikeouts and five shutouts in 2002. He threw a no-hitter at San Diego in 2001.
His comeback comes at an opportune time for Florida, which has another star right-hander, World Series MVP Josh Beckett, on the disabled list for at least another 11 days because of a blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand.
By mid-June, Florida could have all its aces - Burnett, Beckett, Carl Pavano, Brad Penny and Dontrelle Willis - finally in the same rotation. In theory, that would give Florida even a better starting five than the one that carried the Marlins to last year's World Series title.
"Going through this made A.J. work harder," said Willis, who was an offseason training partner of Burnett's. "He's very eager to get out there and perform. And I'm excited to see him and see him healthy."
Burnett said McKeon, pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal, president David Samson and general manager Larry Beinfest were split on whether they thought the three rehab starts he made in the minors this spring were good enough to merit a return to the majors.
He allowed seven hits and four earned runs for Triple-A Albuquerque last Friday night. He struck out six, walked two and gave up a home run, throwing fastballs mostly between 94 and 96 mph.
"Just because I'm not throwing 97 to 100, striking everybody out like I did in 2002, Larry and David are wondering what's wrong with me," Burnett said. "But they haven't come down and watched one bullpen. They haven't come down and watched me once in a game. ... So they have no idea if I'm ready."
McKeon insisted he didn't have to do a lot of lobbying to get Burnett back in the rotation.
"It wasn't a tough decision," McKeon said. "We weighed all the angles. We came to the conclusion that he's ready."
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