MELBOURNE, Australia -- On a Melbourne Aces team that has struggled to find consistent starting pitching in the 2013 Australian Baseball League season, Joe Burns has emerged as the club's most pleasant surprise.
A 28th-round pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft by the Rangers, Burns headed to Australia in October expecting to do what he's done on the diamond each of the past four years -- pitch out of the bullpen. Within a week of arriving, however, he learned that that he was in for something a little bit different.
"It was definitely a surprise when I got over here," he said regarding the plan to have him start.
"I thought I was going to be a reliever, but there were a couple of local guys that were going to need a little longer rest-wise, so they needed a guy to fill in early on. I told them I would try. I said I couldn't promise them anything because I've been in the 'pen the last four years or so, but I said I'd try to extend it out as quick as I could."
After a few messages back and forth with Rangers Minor League pitching coordinator Danny Clark, Burns was ready to go. And he has emerged as the ace of the Aces' staff in the early going.
Through three starts, the 6-foot lefty has posted a 1-0 record and a 2.95 ERA. He ranks second in the ABL with 18 strikeouts and has walked just three in 18 1/3 innings. Over his past two outings, he has been especially good, allowing three runs in 13 innings with 14 strikeouts and just one walk.
"Feeling good," he said referring both to his pitching and his arm's reaction to the increased workload, and he's quick to point to his teammates as a big reason why he's had so much success.
"In this league, there's a lot of older guys, a lot of pro guys who have played at a higher level, so it's really good to bounce some stuff off them, and then also to have them behind you," he said. "You're not worried about, 'Hey, I've got to strike this guy out,' you just pitch."
"Me and [catcher Ryan] Casteel, we seem to be on the same page with everything," he added. "I maybe have to shake him [off] one or two times a game, but in six innings, that's a good thing."
Burns has also found that the ABL offers a great opportunity to hone his craft, while working in a win-now environment.
"I'm trying to work on some stuff, but at the same time, it's a short season and we're trying to go out and win every game, so it's good to go out and try and compete," he said. "We don't have major scouting reports, so it's kind of old school me versus you, you don't know about me, I don't know about you, so let's just go play. I kind of like that about it."
Walking by Burns on the street, one wouldn't necessarily peg him for a pro athlete. Lacking the power pitcher frame and a 90-mph fastball, he's been fighting an uphill battle his entire career. With good coaching and a great work ethic, however, he has managed to defy the skeptics.
"I was trying to get recruited by colleges in high school as a junior throwing 75 mph, and that was always a thing [for scouts]: 'We need velocity, we need velocity.' But my pitching coach was always about quality strikes, how you don't need strikeouts; just let them get themselves out. That's just what I've done and I've tried to keep it simple."
|"I'm from a small town, so it's good to get out here in some of these bigger cities and meet people from different parts of the world. That's a great thing about baseball, you get to travel around and you get to leave your little bubble from home and see how the world lives, and it's been pretty amazing."|
|-- Joe Burns|
He also has a knack for noticing what makes other athletes successful.
"Growing up, I was from Birmingham, Alabama, and I was a big Atlanta Braves fan," he said. "Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were a couple of guys that didn't really light it up a ton, but they could command the ball like crazy. Those were definitely some of my role models growing up. They weren't necessarily fantastic-looking athletes, so that's who I modeled myself after because I've never been a super athletic guy."
The rare modern-day finesse pitcher, Burns has found success at every level, and now he's taking advantage of the opportunity he's received to stretch things out.
"I actually like the starting role for the fact that you get 90 pitches an outing to work on some stuff," he said.
"In college I was mostly a fastball/slider guy and I was kind of a lefty specialist. Now that I've become a 'normal' bullpen guy, I've really been working on a changeup and two different fastballs. I was able to get away with just throwing a four-seam in college that had some natural run on it, but I've really been working on a two-seam, trying to get some extra bite."
While he has taken to starting so naturally, and has used the extra pitches per outing to tinker, Burns is hesitant to state a preference as to whether he'd rather be a starter or reliever going forward. While some are much more comfortable in a certain role, he sees the positives in both.
"They're two totally different options. In starting, you know exactly when you're going to throw -- you've got a routine. With coming out of the 'pen -- there's something about coming out with runners on second and third and one out -- from the first pitch, it's a challenge. It's a huge adrenaline rush when you go out there.
"I love Mexican food and I love Italian food," he summed it up, "but I couldn't pick one to eat for the rest of my life."
The 24-year-old has no specific goals for where he'll be after Spring Training in 2014, but he is excited to build off a solid year with the Class A Hickory Crawdads that saw him go 4-5 with a 4.89 ERA in 31 relief appearances. Though it wasn't a playoff team, Burns' first full pro season was full of positives.
"It was really exciting to play for that team, and to pitch for that offense. It was a solid group and I'll be excited if I get to move up with those guys," he said.
In the meantime, this Australian experience has been exactly what he wanted it to be, and it's another example of how the crafty lefty is using baseball as a way to get the most out of life.
"I'm from a small town, so it's good to get out here in some of these bigger cities and meet people from different parts of the world," he said. "That's a great thing about baseball, you get to travel around and you get to leave your little bubble from home and see how the world lives, and it's been pretty amazing."
There is a genuine calm, a tangible inner peace in Burns' being, and with a broad smile, he shared his appreciation for where he sits on this Monday in late November.
"Two years ago, I was a walk-on at a college in pharmacy school, and now I'm living the dream," he said, "traveling around getting to play some baseball. So that's pretty good for me."
Craig Durham is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.