The Yankees have half-a-dozen starters for five slots so A.J. Burnett’s job assignment has been getting a lot of attention lately. He has been very bad for a good, long stretch now. When the Yankees have to make tough decisions, many, many fans would prefer to see him exiled to the bullpen, sent to the DL, or even released. How much of this has penetrated A.J.’s inner sanctum I have no idea, but he knows how bad he’s been lately and he can count to six. So I’m sure he appreciated the extra scrutiny on tonight’s start against the last-place Royals.
Burnett was protecting a 2-0 lead and potential victory when he faced Melky Cabrera with one out and the bases loaded in the fifth. It was a tough spot and Melky’s no slouch with the stick. Burnett leaped ahead of Cabrera 0-2 with a decent sinker and a good curve. He stood him up with an inside fastball. And then Burnett made his kill-pitch – the low hard curve down around Melky’s ankles. Melky spoiled it. A.J. looked frustrated that Melky hadn’t whiffed and fired his next three pitches indiscriminately towards the general back-stop area. Melky walked, cut the lead in half and Billy Butler followed with another hit that gave the Royals a 3-2 lead.
Stellar defense by Swisher (limiting Butler to a single on a liner towards the corner) and Cano (starting a gorgeous double play to end the inning) kept the score at 3-2, but A.J. Burnett left the mound spinning. And Yankee fans were knee-deep in another Burnett stinker. Through the fifth, he had allowed nine hits, a walk and three runs. Good defense saved him from a lot worse than that.
But the Yankees offense immediately responded to the deficit and pushed three runs across. With the new lead and A.J. somehow in line for a win, he was the last guy I expected to come out for the sixth inning. But there he was. He retired the first batter, allowed a single after a long AB, and then got Salvador Perez to fly out to center. Joe Girardi almost tripped over himself getting out to the mound. He lifted Burnett for Boone Logan. As Burnett left the game, Derek Jeter stopped and whispered something in his ear.
I think both Girardi and Jeter felt that sixth inning was of vital importance to A.J.’s mental state. To leave the game after the disaster in the fifth would have felt like a massive failure regardless of who ended up winning. But by sending A.J. out for the sixth, he might feel like he contributed something to the victory.
This game played out like a scenario contrived specifically for A.J. to work out his problems. That’s the state of the Wild Card race these days, and that, of course, is the state of the Kansas City Royals. I think if this were an important game, Girardi would have yanked Burnett after he walked Melky. Burnett appeared broken when Melky fouled off his out-pitch. And I think if it was even a semi-important game, Burnett would never have come out for the sixth. But it was a totally meaningless game, so Girardi experimented. Hopefully whatever he mixed in the test tube will be useful down the road.
In order for the psycho-drama to function properly, the Yankee offense needed to score first, but keep it close so they could fall behind. The defense had to be top-notch, as the Royals can hit a little bit and are aggressive on the bases. And then they needed to bounce back and give A.J. support when he needed it most. All parties performed their roles superbly. Gardner chopped run-scoring singles and Jeter had three hits and three RBI, the big blow a long triple to right-center that reclaimed the lead in the sixth.
I’d quibble about the first-inning bunt, but apparently, it was just part of the script tonight. Good thing it also called for a flawless Mariano save and a Yankee victory, 7-4. Rehire this creative team next time they play Boston.