Commentary

For A.J. Burnett, it's mind over matter

Struggling righty -- one of Yanks' key question marks -- must get his head on straight

Updated: September 16, 2010, 2:27 PM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

New York Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland tells starter A.J. Burnett four little words all the time.

"Keep your mind right," Eiland says.

It is something Eiland whispers to all his guys, but the message is of extreme importance for Burnett, who might be the most physically talented pitcher on the team. The problem for Burnett is his brain can get in the way of his right arm.

With Burnett on the hill Friday, the floundering Yankees go into Baltimore with more questions than answers for the first time all season.

A.J Burnett
Ron Vesely/Getty ImagesYankees slumping starter A.J. Burnett went 0-5 with an 11.35 ERA in June. He wasn't much better in August, going 0-4 with a 7.80 ERA.

• Are these eight losses in 10 games just a slump bound to happen in a 162-game season or are the Yankees collapsing at the worst time? Was losing five of six to Texas and Tampa an ominous playoff preview or a bunch of one-run losses that the Yankees are flushing from their system?

• Should they be worried about their sudden inability to hit consistently in the clutch or will the return of the injured Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher, deepening the lineup, transform close losses into victories?

• With Andy Pettitte ready to return Sunday, what can he bring, having pitched just 2 1/3 innings since the All-Star break because of his injured groin?

• And with Phil Hughes still just 24 and CC Sabathia unable to pitch every day, as far as we know anyway, will Burnett be more than a 6-foot-4, $82.5 million question mark every time he starts?

Questions. Questions. Questions.

If Burnett can answer his question in a positive fashion, he can make a lot of the other ones disappear. So far this season, Burnett has been more hindrance than help. He is 10-13 with a 5.13 ERA.

For Burnett, it starts with his head and leads to his hips. When he loses focus, when innings spin into an uncontrollable mess, it is often when he twists his hips too much on his delivery, which flattens out his pitches.

Lately, Eiland thinks Burnett has started to have his mind and mechanics right. Burnett is 1-1 with a 4.76 ERA in three starts this month.

"I've seen him trusting himself and his pitches," Eiland said.

The problem is Burnett is like the mystery flavor lollipop -- you never know what to expect, which is scary in important regular-season games or the postseason.

Eiland and the Yankees have seen the good, most notably in Game 2 of last year's World Series. With the Yankees trailing 1-0 in the series, New York was panic city with Burnett taking the mound. Burnett didn't get swept away by the spotlight.

"I was just living in the moment," Burnett told Eiland.

Burnett fired seven innings of two-run ball as the Yankees tied the series on their way to title No. 27.

"Physically, he was the same guy," Eiland said."Mentally, he was locked in."

So the Yankees know Burnett can do it, but they also are very aware of his road playoff nightmares. This is why it will be a fascinating debate about when to use Burnett and Hughes -- home or away -- in October.

Wednesday in Tampa, Burnett spent nearly a half-hour in the road manager's office at Tropicana Field, talking with his boss, Joe Girardi.

The two spoke about baseball and life, Girardi said, but the manager wouldn't reveal any other details.

Whatever they talked about, the goal is surely to keep Burnett believing in himself -- because with him confidence is always an issue.

Eiland doesn't like to focus too much on Burnett's head with the media, but Eiland admits that, as with anyone, doubt can creep in and paralyze Burnett's skills. If you've had winless months, like Burnett had in both June and August, it can make anyone question his ability.

"If a golfer is in front of the tee and says, 'I hope I don't shank this one and pull it into the water,' he is probably not going to hit a good shot," Eiland said.

In big games, the mind becomes even more important, which is why Burnett has gone to a sports psychologist to try to make sure his mind is as clear as possible.

The beauty of Pettitte's playoff success is its simplicity. Pettitte doesn't magnify the moments. He combats them by treating them as just a faceoff against each batter.

"He believes he can find a way to get it done," Eiland said.

Eiland tries to make the postseason seem as routine as possible for starters. Bowing to Burnett's fragile psyche last season, Girardi benched Jorge Posada in favor of the inferior-hitting Jose Molina to try to make Burnett comfortable. This year, Girardi has made Francisco Cervelli Burnett's permanent valet.

The Yankees are trying to handle Burnett just right, because his head might contain the answer to heal much of what is wrong with them.

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

More from ESPNNewYork.com »

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

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