“I can’t stand AJ Burnett. I don’t like him. I don’t like his face, I don’t like the way he looks, I don’t like his tattoos, I don’t like him at all.”
It’s not some demented baseball version of “Green Eggs and Ham,” it’s my mother’s visceral reaction to Allan James Burnett’s mere appearance on a pitcher’s mound. Mom lives nearly 600 miles away, and I’m sure she was repeating those words when she asked my father, “Who’s pitching tonight” and he likely said, “Burnett. Your favorite.”
My mom’s disdain toward Burnett is shared among many Yankee fans. Turning from the superficial to the baseball-related stuff, Burnett’s 2010 performance provided all cause for whatever disdain, distrust, or dislike is felt. Burnett had allowed at least six earned runs in nine of his 26 starts prior to Wednesday’s outing. As news of Andy Pettitte’s pain-free, 55-pitch bullpen session and Javier Vazquez’s return to the starting rotation filtered through the wires, talk shifted to AJ Burnett potentially pitching his way out of the rotation. ESPN New York’s Andrew Marchand, my fellow Ithaca alum, went so far as to say he was staring at “that Ed Whitson-Hideki Irabu-Kei Igawa abyss,” and gave this start make-or-break status.
(I’d put the “abyss” more on the Kevin Brown level rather than Whitson, Irabu or Igawa — especially when you consider the parallel of Burnett cutting his hand while breaking a plastic casing on the clubhouse door to Brown punching a stanchion in the clubhouse back in 2004 and breaking his left hand, but OK, point taken.)
Burnett has had three discernible trends this season: 1) all-out implosion; 2) early blow-up, then cruises, as he did in Kansas City; 3) cruise early, then have a one- or two-inning hiccup and hang on for dear life. Wednesday, Burnett chose Option 3. Staked to a 4-0 lead after two innings, Burnett had everything working the first pass through the A’s order. He was throwing hard but looked like he had a lot in reserve. Once the fourth inning came around, the inevitable “uh-oh” moment happened. Burnett caught too much of the plate with two fastballs: the first resulted in a line-drive double off the bat of Kurt Suzuki, and the second ended up in the right-field seats, courtesy of Kevin Kouzmanoff. 4-2 Yankees.
The fifth inning wasn’t much better. Rajai Davis led off by scalding a belt-high fastball to left-center that one-hopped the fence for a ground-rule double. He later stole third base and scored on a groundout. As quickly as the Yankees built the four-run cushion for Burnett, the lead was down to one. Burnett then lost a nine-pitch battle with Daric Barton, issuing a two-out walk. He bore down and got Suzuki to fly out to end the inning, and retired the A’s in the sixth, the only blip in that inning being the two-out single by Mark Ellis.
Joe Girardi has fiercely defended Burnett, citing how well he’s pitched in big games — specifically Game 2 of the World Series and the way he dueled Josh Beckett at Yankee Stadium last August — and it’s not too late for him to turn things around and have a good month heading into the playoffs. But he did not take any chances Wednesday night. Girardi pulled Burnett after the sixth with the Yankees holding the slim 4-3 lead, preserving at worst a no-decision. Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan and Kerry Wood made things interesting in the seventh and eighth innings, putting the tying run in scoring position in both frames. However, they were able to escape those jams.
Even Mariano Rivera wasn’t a sure bet. He, too, allowed the tying run to advance to scoring position. After retiring the first two batters quickly, Daric Barton reached on an infield single and later stole second base. But Rivera ended the suspense by striking out Suzuki on a 93 mile-per-hour sinker.
Mark Teixeira continued to wield a hot bat, going 3-for-4 and driving in three more runs.
But the story was Burnett. He bent but didn’t break, tying a season-high with eight strikeouts and walking just two to earn his first winning decision since July 28. More importantly, 65 percent of the pitches he threw were strikes (59 of 91). As there are three trends to Burnett’s starts, there are now three AJs: The Extreme AJ that’s either great or awful, and the AJ that’s in between. Not bad, not stellar, just good enough to win. The Yankees will take that last one every time.
For one more turn through the rotation, at least, Burnett is still a piece to the Yankees’ pitching puzzle.