One of my big fears about A.J. Burnett was that he would be the 2009 version of Randy Johnson. In his two years as a Yankee, Johnson won 34 games, struck out 383 men, and had one key run of dominance, posting a 1.93 ERA over his final eight starts of 2005 as the team went 7-1 in those games and won the AL East via a tie-breaker with the Wild Card Red Sox. Those handsome counting stats and one hot stretch belied the fact that Johnson was maddeningly inconsistent and enigmatic, and used Jorge Posada as his scapegoat for his struggles, forcing his manager to pair him up with weak-hitting backup John Flaherty.
Most significantly, Johnson, who was brought in to be the dominant ace who would make the difference for the Yankees in the postseason as he had for the 2001 Diamondbacks who beat the Yankees in the World Series, was awful in both of his postseason starts as a Yankee. To make matters worse, both of those starts were key Game Three rubber matches in best-of-five ALDS series that were tied 1-1. Johnson’s failures put the Yankees in 1-2 holes against the Angels in 2005 and the Tigers in 2006, a game away from elimination, contributing mightily to the team’s first-round exits both years.
Burnett has proven to be a far better teammate than Johnson, but his regular season performance in 2009 was certainly Unit-esque. However, his role in the postseason has thus far been very different. There are two key reasons. The first is that CC Sabathia, not Burnett, is the man the Yankees are counting on to be that dominant post-season ace, and Sabathia has thus far delivered. The second is that Burnett, though he opened the season in the third spot in the rotation behind Sabathia and Chien-Ming Wang, is not starting those crucial Games Three. Instead he’s following Sabathia, which means that thus far both of his starts have come with the Yankees up 1-0. That’s a much lower risk situation as a Burnett stinker would do no worse than tie the series with plenty of games left to play.
Also, to Burnett’s credit, he pitched well against the Twins in his first career postseason start. It was a typical Burnett outing in which he put more men on base (seven, five via walk plus two hit by pitch) than got there via hits (three), but the end result was just one run alowed in six innings and, ultimately, a Yankee win.
Tonight he looks to put the Yankees up 2-0 against the arch-rival Angels and lefty Joe Saunders, once again pitching to Jose Molina. As for Saunders, he’s been excellent since returning from an August DL stay, going 7-0 in eight starts with a 2.55 ERA, including a strong 8 1/3-inning outing against the Yankees in Anaheim on September 21. The DL stay was due to a tight shoulder, and it seems the two weeks off were exactly what he needed.
Outside of Molina batting ninth, the Yankee order is the same as last night, including Hideki Matsui DHing against the lefty (because he hits them well, and so that Posada can sub in for Molina once Burnett is out of the game).
Despite forecasts of rain, it’s still dry in northern New Jersey a half-hour before first pitch. Still, the bitter cold could negatively effect Burnett’s ability to grip his knuckle-curve, giving sinker/slider pitcher Saunders and edge. If so, perhaps Girardi will get Posada in the game even earlier, as it was Burnett’s doubts about Posada’s ability to block that curve in the dirt that led to his preference for Molina.