With the roughest patch of his 15-year career now behind, the present is looking pretty good for A.J. Burnett. The 37-year-old right-hander has rejuvenated his career with a return to the National League and will look to follow up Cliff Lee's gem with one of his own as the Phillies go for a sweep of the Cubs on Sunday at Wrigley Field.
"Each time out, you know it's still early, you're going to get to where you start feeling better," said Burnett, who impressed in his Phillies debut with six innings of shutout ball against Texas on Tuesday. "But to get that one out of the way with the new team and the nerves and all that -- I'm looking forward to taking the ball every five days for this team. They go out and they compete and this has a chance to be a fun year."
Burnett was signed to a massive five-year, $82.5 million contract with the Yankees in 2009, but never did live up to the contract. He posted a 4.79 ERA with New York from 2009-11 and was traded to Pittsburgh, where he flourished. In 2012-13 with the Pirates, he posted a 3.41 ERA while racking up 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings, earning him his current 1-year, $16 million contract with the Phillies.
Burnett said he became a better person from his struggles in New York, and most important, learned how to ease up on himself.
"After everything I went through in New York, nobody puts more pressure on themselves than I do," he said. "Whether it's 40,000 (fans), whether it's upper management, nobody's going do that more than me. The bottom line was I tried to do too much. I tried to do more than A.J.'s capable of doing. When you do that, you can't succeed."
He'll oppose fellow right-hander Carlos Villanueva, who took the loss in each of the Cubs' first two games coming out of the bullpen. He threw a bullpen session Friday in preparation for Sunday's start, which was always the plan.
"I threw a bullpen and I told [pitching coach Chris] Bosio, 'I wish I could pitch today,'" Villanueva said on Friday. "I feel really good today."
Villanueva will look to continue a string of strong Cubs starting pitching. Chicago's ERA decreased to 2.45 after Jeff Samardzija and two relievers held the Phillies to two runs on Sunday. But even if Villanueva has a good outing, it might not matter if the Cubs don't turn things around at the plate.
Saturday's shutout means the Cubs have scored just eight runs in five games. They outhit the Phillies 10-7 but finished 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position, a disturbing trend on the young season.
"No one really is feeling kind of extra pressure, we're just trying to figure something out," said third baseman Mike Olt. "Early in the season this happens a lot. The good teams are the ones that get over it."
Cubs: Sweeney happy to be back in Chicago, majors
After unexpectedly starting last season in the minors, Ryan Sweeney is pleased to be starting the season in the big leagues.
Sweeney spent four productive years in Oakland before being cut by the Boston Red Sox following the 2013 season, and no team came calling with a Major League contract offer. After driving all the way home to Iowa from Florida following Spring Training 2013, he decided he would have to work his way back up.
Sweeney, who signed a minor-league contract with the Cubs on April 2, 2013, hit .327 in 28 games across three minor league levels for the Cubs last season, earning a callup early in the season. The reward? After 70 games in 2013, He got to start 2014 on a big league roster once again.
"I knew I didn't belong in Triple-A and I mean I've had good Triple-A numbers all throughout my career, so I knew it was just a matter of time before I got back," Sweeney said. "I figured I could look at it one of two ways: that I could go down there and be pissed off and do crappy or whatever, or I could go down there and hit well and get out of there soon and that's what I tried to do.
"To actually be in the clubhouse now at this time of year is a good feeling."
Phillies: Utley swinging a hot bat, Phillies offense on a roll
Citizens Bank Park is well known as a good hitters' park, but the Phillies second baseman might not mind calling Wrigley Field home. Chase Utley went 3-for-3 with a double and home run on Saturday to raise his average at Wrigley to .338 in 23 games.
He deferred any credit to his team, which is hitting .286 and averaging 5.6 runs per game on the young season.
"I think it's always important," said Utley of getting off to a good start offensively. "The fact that we've swung the bats fairly well at the start is only a positive."
Utley has started the season 10-for-21 (.476) with a 1.38 OPS and is 5-for-8 with a double, two home runs, three runs scored and four RBIs in the series.
• Utley's double to right in the eighth inning of Saturday's game was the 300th of his career. He's eighth on the franchise's all-time doubles list.
• The Phillies' bullpen hasn't allowed a hit in 5 2/3 innings of work in the series.
• Including Jeff Samardzija's strong outing on Saturday, the Cubs starting staff has compiled a 1.95 ERA this season.
• Cubs center fielder Emilio Bonifacio collected two more hits on Saturday, giving him 13 for the year, tops in the majors.
Joe Popely is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.