- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Four years ago, a New York Yankees manager took a desperate step in a last-ditch effort to win a playoff series. He took the most talented hitter on his roster and dropped him to eighth in the batting order.
That move backfired on Joe Torre. He lost Alex Rodriguez, his team lost the game and a year later, he lost his job.
No matter how this playoff run ends for the Yankees, there will be no such repercussions coming down on Joe Girardi for taking A.J. Burnett, a pitcher some believe to be in possession of the most naturally talented arm on their staff, and dropping him from the rotation for the ALDS, which begins Wednesday night at Target Field, home to the Minnesota Twins.
Unlike the lingering resentment between A-Rod and Torre, who practically needed the help of Henry Kissinger to execute a simple handshake this June in Los Angeles, there are no hard feelings from Burnett.
There were no grumblings in the Yankees clubhouse, which was virtually torn asunder in 2006 by what looked to some like a manager's attempt to scapegoat and publicly humiliate a proud and insecure superstar.
Most importantly, unlike Torre's head-scratcher of a decision to gut his lineup for a crucial playoff game, everyone seems to be in agreement that this is the right thing to do.
Playoff baseball, especially given the random nature of the best-of-five opening round, dictates that a manager go only with his best. And right now, A.J. Burnett, who began the season as the No. 2 starter in the Yankees' rotation, is no longer even in the top four.
Even Burnett, every bit as proud and in his own way just as insecure as A-Rod, seems to agree.
"It was a surprise, yeah, and obviously I'm disappointed," said Burnett, who even as recently as Saturday, after another poor start that included a bizarre fielding brain cramp that cost the Yankees a run, was saying he fully expected to be in the starting rotation for the ALDS.
"I mean, who doesn't want to make a postseason start?" Burnett said. "But I accept reality. You have to look at the big picture, you have to look at the goal, and the goal here is to win a championship. You have to put your ego aside. I gotta put my wanting to start aside, because the kid, Hughsie, deserves a start. It would be silly for him not to."
A couple of lockers down, "the kid," Hughsie -- Phil Hughes, in case you're wondering -- was accepting the assignment with the appropriate amount of humility.
"I didn't necessarily know it was coming," said Hughes, who began the season as No. 5 in the rotation but quickly leapfrogged Javier Vazquez and now Burnett, to whom the Yankees are still obligated for three more years at $16.5 million each. "We have a lot options we could have gone to. I'm just happy to be given the opportunity."
And Girardi, presented with the potentially awkward situation of having to manage a player for three more years who might well be feeling slighted, said, "I really didn't know how he would take it, but we talked about it and he seemed like he's on board. As far as our relationship, I think it's good. But it's still not an easy thing to do."
The way in which Girardi handled it seemed to resonate with Burnett. "Joe's the best manager I've ever played for," he said. "He's done more for me this year than probably any manager's ever done. He cares about me as a person and as a player, so I'm gonna go down to that 'pen and I'll be ready to get one out, two outs, whatever I got to do for him."
It was barely a month ago that Girardi called Burnett into his office for a private chat in which he told Burnett not to worry about the damage that had already been done but rather to look ahead to the good he could still do. Burnett left that meeting in Tampa and showed up at the park in Baltimore two nights later with a black eye, an off-field injury that has never been explained by the player or the team.
Still, he went out and threw one of his better games of the year against the Orioles, a seven-inning, three-run outing that had GM Brian Cashman joking that maybe Burnett should go out and get another black eye the next time he pitched.
But he followed that with a rain-shortened start against the Rays at home, a two-inning shellacking in Toronto and the flameout at Fenway that sealed his postseason fate.
"Down the stretch, I never took that huge step to turn it around," said Burnett, who finished with a 10-15 record and 5.26 ERA . "I took baby steps here and there. I understand those are our top three starters during the season and that's who should start the first round, no doubt."
This is the difference between Torre's 2006 Yankees, who with A-Rod hitting like a No. 8 hitter lost in four games to the Detroit Tigers, and Girardi's Yankees, who seem to have every intention of repeating as World Series champions in spite of their recent ragged play.
The best way to do that, Girardi believes, is by throwing his three best starters at the Twins: CC Sabathia in Game 1 on Wednesday, Andy Pettitte in Game 2 on Thursday and the 24-year-old Hughes when the series returns to Yankee Stadium for Game 3 on Saturday.
If there is a Game 4, it will be Sabathia on short rest, and if it goes the distance, Pettitte will come back, on full rest, for the decisive Game 5 next Tuesday here in Minneapolis.
And that also seems to be the difference between Torre and Girardi. For all his intensity and awkwardness with the media, and all his sometimes puzzling in-game maneuvers, Girardi's players truly seem to believe he has the best interests of both the team and his players at heart.
"It was a decision we talked about and we felt with all the left-handed hitters [in the Twins' lineup] we would try to throw four lefties at them in five games," Girardi said diplomatically. He will still throw one right-hander, of course, only it will not be Burnett.
Instead, the second highest-paid pitcher on his staff will take a seat in the bullpen among Mariano Rivera and Kerry Wood, but also among the likes of Sergio Mitre. It is an arrangement that might have caused other guys to pout or sound off, a reaction that might have dealt a damaging blow to team unity and with it, the Yankees' chances in what promises to be a tough playoff series.
But Burnett, who has amassed a litany of sins this year on and off the field, accepted the assignment as a just and fitting penance.
"I'm just glad they still believe in me enough to keep me here, to keep me in the bullpen," Burnett said. "So I'm gonna take it in stride and just try to go with it, and hopefully I can still help out."
Now, it will be a surprise to see him at all this series. If Sabathia pitches as he has all season and Pettitte returns to the form he has shown throughout his career in October, the Yankees will be going to David Robertson, to Joba Chamberlain, to Wood and, of course, to Rivera well before Girardi thinks to pick up a phone and ask for Burnett.
But there are two seven-game series coming up and if the Yankees prove good enough, and lucky enough, to get there, they are going to need a fourth starting pitcher.
If and when that time comes, Joe Girardi is going to need A.J. Burnett. And from the way things sounded on Tuesday, Burnett will be happy to oblige.
ALDS NOTES: In spite of their poor play in September, the Yankees were loose and upbeat before and after their 90-minute workout on the field at Target. "September's gone, guys," Jorge Posada said. "You gonna keep bringing it up and bringing it up? It's October now. This is fun times now." Said Nick Swisher: "We're in the playoffs and that's all that matters. There's a lot of attention drawn to these games and once the lights turn on, the guys around here pick it up, no doubt. Winning is an attitude around here, and we feel that we have that." Derek Jeter, in typical fashion, practically refused to acknowledge the Yankees had even had a rough final weekend in Boston. "We won the first game, we lost the second game in extra innings, and there was only one other game," he said. "So I wouldn't necessarily say we played so poorly. What you did last weekend has no bearing on this. This is a completely different season, completely different atmosphere. Games are managed differently, people are pitched to differently. Whatever happened in the regular season has no bearing on this." ... Royce Ring, Ivan Nova and Eduardo Nuñez, left off the roster for the first round, were sent down to Tampa to work out and stay sharp for possible recall later, but Chad Gaudin and Vazquez, also excluded, are with the team here. Said Vazquez: "I can't say I was surprised or anything. It's nobody's fault but mine. It's difficult as a competitor because you want to be out there, but I wanted to be here with the team. I want to feel like part of the team. I want to be here for them." ... Hughes, who pitched one inning out of the bullpen Saturday night in Boston but has not started since Sept. 26, threw a bullpen in New York on Monday and will throw another one while the Yankees are here to sharpen up for his start on Saturday. "I feel like that inning at Fenway helped," he said. "Hopefully I'll be ready when the time comes."