Commentary

Short rest leads to Burnett's short start

Girardi's pitching plan opening opportunity for Phillies to make a miracle comeback

Updated: November 3, 2009, 9:36 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The chance to win a World Series-clinching Game 5 for the New York Yankees is meant for someone with XXL nerves. A.J. Burnett, who lasted all of six outs in Monday night's meltdown, was a size "small."

It turns out the moment was too much -- way too much -- for the Yankees' No. 2 starter. This is why the Philadelphia Phillies, 8-6 winners on a chilled November night, have more than a pulse in this Series; they have an opportunity to pull off a baseball miracle.

And Burnett?

"I had no hope tonight," he said.

The Phillies played their last game of the year in Citizens Bank Park, but they haven't played their last game of the postseason. Instead, they tossed Burnett into the garbage disposal, flipped the switch and ground him up for six runs in two-plus innings.

"I had a chance to do something special tonight and I failed and I let a lot of guys in here down and I let a city down," said Burnett, who, to his credit, stood in front of his locker and answered every question.

So back to New York we go for at least one more game and, who knows, maybe a deciding seventh. And wouldn't that be something.

But first things first, such as asking the same question we asked days before Burnett took the mound for Game 5 and before Andy Pettitte was all but guaranteed the Game 6 start: What is Yankees manager Joe Girardi thinking?

A.J. Burnett
Andrew Mills/US PresswireA.J. Burnett allowed six runs in two-plus innings and was tagged with the loss in Game 5.
Girardi started Burnett on three days' rest. He got away with it when CC Sabathia pitched well in Game 4, but the decision exploded in the Yankees' face when Burnett gave it a short-rest go. Burnett isn't Sabathia. In fact, he was barely Burnett in Monday night's no-show.

"I just couldn't get the ball where I wanted to," said Burnett, whose fastball spent too much time over the chunky part of the plate and whose curveball arrived with a "Hit Me" invitation attached.

Both Girardi and Burnett insisted the short rest wasn't the reason for Burnett's struggles.

"No, I don't think there was any correlation," Girardi said.

"I felt strong, I felt great," Burnett said. "I just didn't get it done, man."

Burnett does have a history of huge performance swings, but don't the odds for something forgettable increase on fewer days' rest? And is it a good thing when you begin the biggest start of your career by giving up a liner to Jimmy Rollins on a 1-2 pitch? Then follow it up by nearly breaking every small bone in Shane Victorino's right hand? Then throwing a first-pitch dinger to home run machine Chase Utley? Then walking Ryan Howard, who entered the game with a sub-Mendoza Line batting average?

I'll answer that one: no.

Anyway, it was 3-0 Phillies before Burnett even recorded an out.

Burnett eventually got out of the first inning and survived a two-out walk to Rollins in the second inning, then boarded the Disaster Express in the third.

Walk to Utley … walk to Howard … RBI single by Jayson Werth … RBI single by Raul Ibanez … walk of shame to Yankees dugout. Girardi had seen enough and mercifully ended Burnett's night after a 53-pitch (only 28 for strikes), 4-hit, 4-walk, 6-run, 2-strikeout, 1-hit-by-pitch outing.

"When you don't throw strikes, that's what the outcome is going to be," Burnett said.

There was always a danger this could happen. Pitching on three days' rest is a dicey thing, and Girardi knew it. The numbers said Burnett could handle it (he was 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA on short rest), but they didn't say anything about combining three days' rest with the pressures of a World Series Game 5 on the road.

You could tell Burnett might be in trouble as early as Sunday night, when he admitted he couldn't treat his Game 5 appearance as another start. You had to admire his honesty, but it was a verbal red flag.

[+] EnlargeJoe Girardi
Howard Smith/US PresswireJoe Girardi could live to regret his decision to go with a three-man rotation in the World Series.
"I try not to think about it too much, but you can't help not to," he said after Monday night's game.

Burnett won Game 2, pitching spectacularly (7 innings, 1 run, 9 strikeouts, 2 walks). But that was at Yankee Stadium. And it wasn't on three days' rest or with the opportunity to close out the Series or against Phillies ace Cliff Lee.

Lee gave up five runs over seven-plus innings and 112 pitches -- and that was on full rest. If anything, it shows how difficult it is to face high-powered lineups on fewer days of rest.

Girardi hasn't made an official announcement about his Game 6 starter, but he's using all the same managerspeak he used before naming Burnett. In other words, he's going to start 37-year-old Pettitte on three days' rest against a fully rested Pedro Martinez. This is the same Pettitte who admitted after his Game 3 start that he had struggled.

"You know, if Andy feels good, he's going to go on Wednesday," Girardi said late Monday night. "This is something we talked about all throughout. We check with our guys. If he feels good, he's going."

Girardi tried to step on the Phillies' throat with Burnett rather than, say, Chad Gaudin. He hoped he could get the Game 2 Burnett. Instead, he got the Burnett who couldn't throw strikes.

Now he's going to bypass Gaudin again. It isn't a surprise -- Gaudin, who didn't lose any of his six Yankees starts this season (he was 2-0), was phased out of the rotation weeks ago.

"The interesting thing is Chad hasn't thrown much in the last month, and that's a difficult spot to put him in," Girardi said.

It's no more difficult than the spot Girardi put an overhyped and under-rested Burnett in. It's no more difficult than the spot he'll put an under-rested Pettitte in. Just so you know, Pettitte is 5-7 with a 4.18 ERA in 18 career short-rest starts.

If we have these stats, so does Girardi. Yet he's willing to risk the World Series on it.

No team has recovered from a 3-1 Series deficit since 1985, when the Kansas City Royals beat the St. Louis Cardinals. It couldn't happen again, could it?

If it does, the Phillies' miracle comeback would be completed on the number everyone is talking about.

Three days.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

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