Commentary

A.J. Burnett gets it together ... for now

Struggling starter ignored Girardi's threats, kept composure to win versus A's

Updated: September 2, 2010, 10:22 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- As far as empty threats go, the one Joe Girardi delivered to A.J. Burnett five days ago in Chicago appears to have been one of the more effective.

You will recall that after Burnett got shelled for nine runs in less than four innings by the White Sox on Friday, the New York Yankees manager quite pointedly announced that he would be "re-evaluating'' his rotation over the weekend.

This was widely read to mean that Burnett's spot was in jeopardy, when, in fact, Girardi had no intention of carrying out his "threat'' for the simple reason that he had no other starting pitcher to replace him.

After all, he had already moved Javier Vazquez out in favor of wonder-rookie Ivan Nova. Dustin Moseley was hanging on to his own spot by his fingertips. And barring a waiver-wire deal, the alternatives were pretty thin. Chad Gaudin? Sergio Mitre? Javy II?

[+] EnlargeAJ Burnett
AP Photo/Bill KostrounA.J. Burnett and pitching coach Dave Eiland's talks led to a strong performance on Wednesday.

So, in realty, the whole thing was a charade. Girardi knew Burnett was staying in the rotation. Burnett knew he was staying in the rotation. And Girardi knew that Burnett knew.

Still, they went through the motions of "re-evaluation,'' whatever that means, and Burnett apparently had a few heart-to-hearts with Dave Eiland, the pitching coach, starting with his exclamation immediately after the Chicago debacle of, "That's it! No more of this!''

That was not a retirement announcement but an acknowledgement that only one man held the key to solving A.J. Burnett's problems, and that was A.J. Burnett.

"When he said that, I just said, 'All right, then. Let's go to work,''' Eiland said.

Whatever they did, whatever they said and whatever they worked on certainly seems to have worked, because on Wednesday night Burnett pitched six solid innings against the Oakland Athletics, allowed three runs and, most importantly, did not go to pieces when he laid a fastball in for Kevin Kouzmanoff to lose in the right-field seats in the fourth inning.

Burnett held it together and the Yankees' bullpen did the rest, preserving a 4-3 victory in which three of the Yankees' runs were unearned, courtesy of an error by Oakland starter Brett Anderson in the second inning.

He did it with his fastball, which hit 95 and, more importantly, the corners for most of the night. He did it with his curveball, which dived into and out of the strikezone. And he did it with his changeup, of which he threw four all night.

But as Joe Girardi said, "It looked more like a hard splitter,'' and was more than enough to keep a less-than-imposing Oakland lineup honest.

But most of the work that counted was done where it is needed most, and that is between A.J. Burnett's ears. According to Eiland, much of the conversation between he and Burnett since Chicago centered on the right-hander's maddening tendency to lose his composure at the slightest hint of trouble. A walk, a hit, a call that didn't go his way were all grounds for a meltdown.

A home run like the one Kouzmanoff hit Wednesday night? Well, there are clubhouse doors in this town that tremble at the very thought.

This was the area of vulnerability Eiland chose to attack this week, to the extent that he even used a 24-year-old relative novice, Phil Hughes, as an example of the type of poise he would like to see in the 34-year-old, 12-year veteran Burnett.

"You don't quit,'' Eiland said he told Burnett. "You don't throw in the towel just because a guy gets a hit. There's still a lot of innings left, there's a lot of pitches left to be made. It happened, it's over and done with, and you gotta move on to the next hitter. And he did a good job of that tonight.''

Girardi agreed. When he gave up a couple of runs, he went out and got some outs. That's the big thing.''

Whether Burnett was scared into this by Girardi's veiled threat last week or simply figured it out for himself in this, the 296th start of his career, only he knows.

But he gave a strong hint when asked what effect, if any, Girardi's "warning'' in Chicago had had on him.

"I didn't even pay attention to it, to be honest with you,'' said Burnett, now 10-12. "Whatever Joe does, I have no control over. So I really didn't buy into it one way or another. I don't need motivation from the manager to get going. I think what I been through this year and where I am right now should be motivation enough to pick it up and get going. I came out here the same way I been coming out all year. I just executed a little better tonight.''

With the encouraging news about Andy Pettitte before the game and a solid, if not great, outing by Burnett in the game, a Yankees rotation that just days ago looked frayed and ready to come apart may, in fact, be on the verge of solidifying just in time for the stretch run.

"I been saying it for the last two weeks, we're gonna be fine,'' Eiland said. "You hear some people talk and you'd think we were 10 games out. We're right where we want to be and we're not even playing our best yet. With Javy [Vazquez] coming off those two good outings and CC doing what he's doing and Andy getting healthy, we feel really good about it. There's nothing that's that big of a concern right now.''

Until, of course, the next time A.J. Burnett takes the mound.

Game notes
Andy Pettitte is expected to throw a simulated game at Yankee Stadium sometime Saturday, depending on how he feels Thursday, pitching coach Dave Eiland said. ... The decisive runs in the game were scored after the A's botched what should have been a routine, inning-ending ground out by Derek Jeter, Anderson muffing the flip from first baseman Daric Barton. That play scored Curtis Granderson, who had singled, and after Nick Swisher walked, Mark Teixeira (who went 3-for-4 with three RBIs) singled in what proved to be the winning runs. ... Jeter went 1-for-5 but scored two runs. When asked after the game his reaction to his non-Jeterian .266 average, he said, "I'd love to be hitting .350, but it's not the case. But from this point forward, I can help out.'' ... Jorge Posada was ejected by home plate umpire Dana DeMuth for arguing a called third strike hitting for Francisco Cervelli in the eighth. Luckily for the New York Yankees, Chad Moeller had been recalled earlier in the day or Posada would have left his team catcher-less. ... The bullpen excelled again, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, Kerry Wood and Mariano Rivera combining for three innings of scoreless four-hit ball. Lance Berkman returned to the team, slashing a double. ... Thursday's matchup: CC Sabathia goes for No. 19 vs. Dallas (Get Off My Mound) Braden (9-9, 3.28). Unfortunately, Alex Rodriguez will have to watch from the bench. First pitch, 1:05 p.m. ET in the first of five straight day games.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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