Commentary

A-Rod backs up black-eyed Burnett

A.J. sports shiner, punches out pretty good performance -- and Alex delivers KO

Updated: September 18, 2010, 2:46 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

BALTIMORE -- A.J. Burnett got hit hard again this week.

This time, it wasn't with a baseball bat, and as a result the New York Yankees are back atop the AL East after a dramatic 4-3 victory over the Baltimore Orioles on Friday night at Camden Yards.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
AP Photo/Rob CarrA.J. Burnett wouldn't discuss his mysterious black eye Friday.

The cause of the damage to Burnett's right eye, which had the red-and-purple glow of a late summer sunset, was not revealed in a tight-lipped Yankees clubhouse. The cause of the damage to the Orioles, however, was plain for everyone to see, coming off the bat of Alex Rodriguez, who put the Yankees into the lead twice, the second time for good when they were down to their final out.

Earlier in the day, Brian Cashman had arrived from New York, the recent struggles of his team having reached the point that it seemed as if a visit from the principal, er, GM was in order. "This game can turn on a dime," he said to describe how the $210 million team he had assembled could follow an eight-game winning streak by losing eight of its next 10.

Four hours later, the game had done just that, the Yankees turning what would have been another disheartening one-run defeat into a rousing come-from-behind victory, and the news out of Tampa and Boston turning what could have been a very damaging night into one of triumph.

It was not without its mystery, however, this time in the form of what had happened to Burnett between the last time he was seen publicly, leaving manager Joe Girardi's office in the visitor's clubhouse in Tampa unscathed, and when he turned up on the mound in Baltimore with a shiner.

"I'm not gonna comment on that," a grim-faced Girardi said. "The story tonight is his pitching."

Burnett was more amiable but not much more forthcoming. "I know you guys have got to ask about it," he said, smiling. "But I'm not gonna comment on it. There's more important things going on with this team right now than my eye. It makes me look tough, though."

Not as tough as he looks when he spots his fastball the way he did against the Orioles, or slips his knuckle curve over the way he did to a slack-jawed Ty Wigginton to end the first inning. "I attacked tonight," said Burnett, who was happy to come away with a no-decision after leaving the game trailing 3-2. "I established both my pitches. I did a pretty good job of putting everything that happened behind me and throwing one pitch at a time. This is probably the best I've felt in a long time."

On a night when A-Rod hit like A-Rod and Jorge Posada, held out of the starting lineup, toughed out the kind of at-bat only a battle-grizzled veteran could to start the ninth-inning rally, the performance of Burnett, black eye and all, had to be the most welcome news of the night for Yankees fans. With CC Sabathia going Saturday and Andy Pettitte returning to action Sunday after a two-month absence, the problems that looked so large with the Yankees rotation in Texas and Tampa suddenly don't seem so big and bad in Baltimore.

And when the Yankees come up with the kind of timely hitting they put together in the ninth -- an 11-pitch at-bat by Posada, who fouled off a handful of pitches before lining a single to left, and A-Rod's bomb to left-center one pitch after taking a 1-2 pitch that could very well have been called strike three -- the kind of night Burnett had Friday can win on plenty of nights in October.

"Huge at-bat by Jorgie, and then A-Rod does what A-rod is supposed to do," Burnett said.

"This is a big win for us. We needed it," Girardi said. "This has been a frustrating road trip. I sure hope that this is the one that maybe gets us going."

This game really can turn on a dime, or a deuce, or a series of good outings by a pitcher who pretty much disappeared for two months of this season, going 0-9 in June and August. "It's getting there," Burnett said. "I still got work to do, but every time out there's steps forward."

The biggest step for Burnett has always been his ability, or more accurately his inability, to bounce back from in-game adversity. Friday night, he surrendered a home run on a 2-0 fastball to Adam Jones in the fourth, a forgivable mistake, and another on a 1-0 pitch to Robert Andino, who hadn't hit a ball out of a major league park in more than a year. "With two outs, you gotta get that guy out," Burnett said.

But he got through the inning and wrapped up his night having dealt seven innings of six-hit, three-run ball, his best outing in a month. Whatever happened to him this week was not baseball-related -- both he and Girardi said so -- and was clearly of a sensitive enough nature that no one in the Yankees clubhouse would talk about it. Coming on the heels of last week's game in Texas, in which Burnett pitched with a bruised right ear courtesy, he said, of a workshop mishap, it lent a bizarre sidelight to an otherwise uplifting game.

"It was just something I had to deal with," Burnett said. "I dealt with it and we move on. I handled what I had to handle and focused on my job."

On a night of nothing but good news for the Yankees, that had to be the best news of all.

GAME NOTES: A-Rod's two homers gave him 25 for the season and his four RBIs ran his total to 111, third in the AL. He now has 13 consecutive seasons of 25 HRs or better, which ties him with Willie Mays and leaves him just two behind Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds for most consecutive seasons in major league history. ... David Robertson, who pitched a 1-2-3 eighth, got the win. ... Mariano Rivera pitched a perfect ninth to earn his 31st save. ... Saturday's pitching matchup: Sabathia (19-6, 3.03) vs. RHP Jeremy Guthrie (10-13, 3.74).

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

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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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