Commentary

Yanks have no choice but A.J. Burnett

The wildly inconsistent righty has struggled all year, but who else would pitch Game 4?

Updated: October 13, 2010, 3:19 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- As of Tuesday afternoon, hours before Texas eliminated Tampa Bay, the New York Yankees still didn't know who will start Games 2 and 3 for them in the ALCS, which means they also didn't know who will start Games 6 and 7.

But they know CC Sabathia is starting Game 1, and they know A.J. Burnett is starting Game 4.

If that last sentence made you gasp or gulp or head for the highest ledge, you need to take a deep breath or a swallow and, for god's sake, close that window now.

Because A.J. Burnett is the necessary evil in the Yankees' ALCS rotation. There is simply no way around him, and really, no better way of going about trying to return to the World Series.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
AP Photo/Kathy WillensA.J. Burnett was brilliant in Game 2 of the '09 World Series. This year, he didn't even pitch in the ALDS.

I know it is a risk, you know it is a risk and even the GM, Brian Cashman, knows it is a risk, as revealed by his totally unsolicited remark on a conference call Monday afternoon with Yankees beat writers, when he said, "Our fans need to be prepared for a four-man rotation, and that probably includes A.J. Burnett."

He might just as well have said: Bear with us on this, please.

Or even: Don't tear the place down when you see No. 34 on the mound in a playoff game, perhaps even a crucial playoff game, next Tuesday.

But really, you got a better idea?

Burnett is going to be a part of this playoff rotation. He will prepare for it by taking the mound against major-league hitters -- well, Ramiro Peña and friends, anyway -- for the first time since Oct. 2 in a simulated game at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday and then, as pitching coach Dave Eiland said, "send him out there."

The obvious alternative would be to go with the three pitchers who won the ALDS against the Minnesota Twins -- Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes -- repeated as necessary.

But it really doesn't work logically or mathematically.

If you go with all three on normal rest, you still need a Game 4 starter. And if you try to ride the big horse three times -- Sabathia in Games 1, 4 and 7 -- you need all three of your starters to go on short rest, a scenario that manager Joe Girardi neatly laid to rest at Tuesday's pre-workout media conference.

"Hughsie's never done it," Girardi said. "And Andy's coming off an injury."

He didn't bother mentioning that Sabathia has already thrown 237 innings and thrown a bucket load of baseballs this year -- 19 starts of 110-plus pitches and two of 120-plus -- and that even if that yeoman workload gets you through the ALCS, you still have a World Series to play and win.

Fat chance winning it with a pitching staff that is worn out just getting you there.

(Of course, you could get by with three starters if Mother Nature cooperates with a rainout or two, but so far not even the Yankees have been able to buy weather.)

Face it, A.J. Burnett is the harsh reality we all must face.

We know he is going to pitch Game 4 because of an unguarded remark Eiland made Tuesday when I asked him if the possibility of needing a Game 7 starter would determine who would start Game 3, because the same pitcher necessarily would start Game 7.

"That's not a factor," he said. "We feel whoever pitches Game 2 or whoever pitches 3 can pitch Game 7. What I mean is, our first three guys, CC, Andy and Phil, we would have no problem running any of those three out [for] 7."

So now we know when Burnett is going to pitch: Tuesday, Oct. 19 at Yankee Stadium, in a game in which the Yankees could be trying to sweep or stave one off, in which the Yankees could be trying to take a commanding 3-1 lead, or even trying to even things back up after falling behind 2-1.

In two of those four cases, you would be entrusting Burnett with an enormous responsibility. But again, what are your alternatives? Dustin Moseley? Chad Gaudin? Javier Vazquez?

(Both Gaudin and Vazquez, left off the ALDS roster, will follow Burnett in the simulated game on Wednesday, raising the possibility that one of them wil be added to the ALCS roster as a long man. And you thought the prospect of Burnett in a playoff game was scary?)

Despite the ugly numbers (10-15, 5.26 ERA), there is no denying that Burnett is an immensely talented pitcher who is going to be part of this Yankees team through the 2013 season at a cost of $16.5 million per year.

Nobody here is willing to give up on him, because they believe he can be that good. And also because not even the Yankees can continue to swallow contracts the size of Burnett's without eventually choking to death.

There's really no point in rehashing the various theories on why Burnett has been unable to consistently harness the talent in that right arm and quiet the demons in his head. Eiland and Burnett grudgingly seem to have settled on it being a confidence issue -- that if Burnett goes to the mound and throws all his pitches with the belief that they will be effective, well, they will be.

It sounds a bit too pat and simple for me, but as Eiland said on another matter, "There's a lot smarter people than me working on this one."

What they are all really hoping -- and by all, I mean Girardi, Eiland, Cashman and Burnett -- is that somehow this man with a rocket for an arm and a rock for a head will somehow be able to channel the pitcher who may well have saved the 2009 World Series. The pitcher who, on the night after the Yankees were smothered at home by Cliff Lee in Game 1, threw a brilliant seven innings against the Phillies to even things up.

Eiland tried to liken it to the plight of a golfer hunching over a difficult lie. "If you don't think you're going to make the shot, you won't make it," he said. "Same thing with A.J. You reinforce the positive, show him film of when he was successful and what he was doing, put positive thoughts in his head, because if you go out there with negative thoughts you're probably going to get negative results."

Eiland described his job as "coach, psychologist, uncle, father, big brother, bad uncle sometimes."

Asked which of those hats he needs to put on with Burnett, he said, "Every one of them, every day. Sometimes it changes from minute to minute."

But Burnett seems to have bought into the theory of positive reinforcement as the solution to his problems.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett & Derek Jeter
AP Photo/Kathy WillensDerek Jeter & Co. can only hope A.J. Burnett rediscovers his command in the ALCS.

"You remember the good ones and forget about the bad ones," Burnett said. "You watch the good ones. You watch Game 2 [of the World Series]. You can even go back and watch 2002 if you wanted, back when I was 23, and get some confidence. It's all about positive thinking."

Burnett said he last watched the tape of Game 2 a couple of months ago. "I saw confidence," he said. "I saw a pitcher who didn't try to pick, didn't try to nibble, clearly pitched with conviction, had a good tempo and a good mindset the whole game. Didn't let anything bother him. Gave up the first run in that game but didn't let it bother him. Kept his team in it."

Asked if that tape might find its way into his machine again between now and next Tuesday, he said, "More than likely. You can say there's a good shot of that."

If it sounds like a lot of wishful thinking, a lot of best-case scenarios, a lot of finger-crossing and a good dollop of psychobabble, well, it is.

But again, what are your alternatives?

There are seven games to an ALCS, and A.J. Burnett is going to pitch one of them.

The Yankees believe that, at worst, they can survive that.

The question is, can you?

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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