Commentary

Burnett could be on outside looking in

After latest troubling outing, Yankees' playoff plans may not include A.J.

Updated: September 28, 2010, 8:27 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TORONTO -- More and more, A.J. Burnett is looking like the No. 4 starter in a three-man rotation.

Despite public proclamations of faith, his manager refuses to commit to him beyond his next regular-season start, which will also be his last this season.

And despite rave reviews on the quality of his stuff, it has gotten to the point that the New York Yankees will no longer even hazard a theory as to why a pitcher as talented as Burnett has so much trouble staying in ballgames, let alone winning them.

Without saying so, it is becoming obvious that the only one who still has any faith in A.J. Burnett is, well, A.J. Burnett. And that may no longer be enough.

"Yeah, I expect to pitch in the postseason,'' Burnett snorted, almost defiantly, in answer to the question on everyone's mind and on more than a few lips in the Yankees' clubhouse after their 7-5 loss to the Blue Jays on Monday night. "I'm not gonna let this one bother me. Everyone says the regular season doesn't matter around here, the postseason does, so there you go.''

But the only thing that's going is Burnett's chance to start in said postseason, especially in the opening best-of-five series that can so easily trip up a team like the Yankees. Asked point blank if Burnett would be part of the postseason starting rotation, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, "A.J.'s gonna start for us.''

Pressed to elaborate, Girardi said, "He's got one more start coming, and we've got things to work out.''

Then, the manager began to hide behind the cliches of evasion, ranging from "We've got to get there first'' to "I'm not going to speculate because we're not in yet.''

However, when asked if CC Sabathia was guaranteed a starting spot in the postseason, Girardi said, "I think that's a pretty fair assumption.''

[+] EnlargeAJ Burnett
AP Photo/The Canadian Press/Nathan DenetteA.J. Burnett surrendered seven runs in 2 1/3 innings against the Blue Jays.

But when it came to Burnett, another fair assumption was dismissed as mere speculation.

Realistically, despite their recent struggles -- the loss was the Yankees' fifth in their past six games, and over their past 50 games they are 26-24 -- the Yankees are headed for the postseason. The only question left is how far they are going, and when you see pitching of the caliber that Burnett showed Monday night, it makes you think they won't go very far at all.

Anyone with two eyes, a clear head and no vested interest in keeping a $16.5 million pitcher happy for the rest of this season plus three more years can see right now, there is no earthly reason to trust Burnett with something so precious as a start in a series in which three losses means death. And there is plenty of evidence to prove it is less of a gamble to go with three starters in the Division Series -- meaning one pitcher (Sabathia) would pitch on short rest -- than to go with a four-man rotation that includes Burnett.

"I'm not gonna talk about playoffs until we're in,'' Girardi said. "But you got to remember A.J. has pitched a lot of big games for us. He was big in the playoffs for us last year.''

But not Monday night. On a night in which Girardi would have loved to rest his bullpen, he got just a tick more than two innings out of Burnett, whose horrendous line -- 2-1/3 IP, seven hits, seven earned runs -- was not even his worst of the year. But when you factor in all that was at stake -- coming at a time when his team is trying to finally put this playoff run to bed and when he himself is trying to re-establish his credentials to be an important part of the postseason pitching staff -- Burnett could hardly have fared any worse.

Burnett attributed his failure to the usual culprits -- poor fastball command, a curve without any bite, pitches leaking out over the plate -- but particularly disturbing was the third inning, when he simply could not seem to get anyone out. Already trailing 2-0 and victimized for a long solo homer by John Buck in the second, Burnett started poorly -- walking Travis Snider to open the frame and plunking Yunel Escobar in the buttocks even before his pitches were being used for batting practice by the major league's leading home run hitting team.

After barely keeping Jose Bautista, the league's leading slugger with 52 homers, in the ballpark, Burnett surrendered a long three-run homer to Vernon Wells, and then allowed a double to Lyle Overbay, an RBI single to Buck and a single to Adam Lind before Girardi came to get him to a standing ovation from the Yankees fan-heavy crowd at the Rogers Centre.

By then, it was 7-0, and the discouragement that lately has set in on the Yankees' offense, as outlined by Alex Rodriguez after the team's 10-8 loss to the Red Sox on Friday night, began festering again. It didn't help that Marc Rzepczynski, a pitcher the Yankees had previously manhandled, was striking out batters at a record rate, at one point obtaining eight straight outs by strikeout.

"His ball was moving everywhere tonight,'' Mark Teixeira said. "It was like swinging at a ghost.''

The Yankees battled back, getting a two-run homer from Curtis Granderson, his 24th, in the fifth and a three-run bomb to dead center by Teixeira, his 33rd, in the seventh, to make a game of it. But the seven-run deficit proved to be too much to overcome, as had the 10-1 hole the Yankees found themselves in Friday night.

But the starter responsible for that mess, Andy Pettitte, is coming off two months on the disabled list and has an October track record the Yankees know they can can rely upon. Burnett has two seasons of maddening inconsistency leavened only slightly by his excellent performance in Game 2 of last year's World Series (it should also be remembered that Burnett did not make it out of the third inning in Game 5, the game that temporarily gave the Phillies some life).

The Yankees got by with a three-man rotation last October and one of those men was Burnett. But it would seem to be asking too much of the baseball gods to expect them to get that lucky again. Now, Girardi is forced to use Sabathia on Tuesday night in yet another attempt to nail down a playoff spot for a team that not long ago seemed destined to win at least 100 games and run away with the division.

Now, they can win no more than 98 and their playoff spot, incredibly, is still in doubt. Nothing has been nailed down yet, and nothing has been lost. Except, possibly, A.J. Burnett's chance to be a part of it.

The Blue Jays, Burnett's last team before he came to the Yankees as a free agent before the 2009 series, have treated their old mate roughly this season, beating him three times in four starts. Burnett's ERA versus Toronto this year is 9.61. ... This was the eighth straight game the Yankees have lost to a left-handed starter. Their record in September now stands at 11-14. ... Sabathia (20-7, 3.26) faces RHP Kyle Drabek (0-2, 4.91) Tuesday night. First pitch at 7:07 p.m. ET.

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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