Commentary

It's April, so A.J. must be A-OK

Thanks to Burnett's new support system, you get the feeling success could continue

Updated: April 14, 2011, 8:16 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Over the past three seasons, April has been as kind to A.J. Burnett as it has been cruel to Mark Teixeira.

Burnett has never lost a game as a New York Yankee in April, and his performance Wednesday night against the Baltimore Orioles -- 6 1/3 innings, seven hits, four earned runs -- was good enough to run his record this April to 3-0, or one more victory than the Boston Red Sox have been able to manage this month.

In fact, throughout his career, A.J. Burnett has been better in April than in any other month of the season -- 18-9 with a 3.84 ERA.

But just as the Yankees do their best to downplay Teixiera's annual miserable start as no indication of where his season will finish -- he is hitting .222 so far, his best start in his three Yankees seasons -- they are trying just as hard to exploit Burnett's excellent start as a sign that this year will be a good one from beginning to end.

Burnett, a head case but by no means a dummy, isn't about to buy into that quite yet.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesA.J. Burnett took a shutout into the seventh inning.

What, he was asked, makes this April different from so many others? How do we know that this time it is not a false spring but a real indication that a hot summer is on its way?

"I don't really know if it is," he said, honest and candid as ever after the Yankees beat the Orioles 7-4 to move into a tie for first-place in the AL East. "I was able to get runs early and that allows me to relax a little bit, go out there and have fun."

Burnett knows better than anyone that his troubles on the mound reside not in his arm, but between his ears. And it certainly is a lot more fun to pitch with a three-run lead, as Burnett did after Alex Rodriguez's three-run homer in the first, and even more fun to pitch with a six-run lead, like the one he had after Robby Cano's two-run double in the second.

By the time Jorge Posada busted out of an 0-for-19 slump in the fifth with a shot off a sign on the fašade of the second deck in right -- the one reading, appropriately, "POWER" -- Burnett was cruising behind a seven-run cushion.

In fact, Burnett has had solid run support all season -- he was staked to a 6-0 lead after two innings in his first start of the season, and the Yankees wiped out his only deficit, a momentary 2-1 lead taken by the Minnesota Twins in his second start, with three runs in the next half-inning -- which leaves the question open as to whether or not he has truly overcome the demons that plagued him for much of last season.

But there are signs that things could be different for A.J. Burnett this season. For one thing, he has a solid support system to go along with the run support.

He has a new pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, who rather than boggle his mind with dissertations on mechanics tells him to just go out and let it fly.

He has a new catcher, Russell Martin, who not only encourages but insists that he throw his secondary pitches, most notably his changeup, in situations in which he previously dared throw nothing but his fastball.

And he has a most unlikely mentor, the rookie right-hander Ivan Nova, who has taken on the role of stabilizing force in Burnett's clubhouse life.

Wednesday night, after walking Matt Wieters in the second inning, Rothschild trotted out to the mound. It was not his idea.

"First time in my career I ever called a pitching coach out," Burnett said. Turns out he was being troubled by the way his heel was landing on the mound and wanted Rothschild to help him correct it.

"Forget about that," Rothschild told him. "Just let it fly."

So he did -- and retired 14 of the next 16 batters he faced, until the Orioles touched him up for four runs, on two two-run homers, in the seventh. But more about that later.

First, there were some coffee cups to be rearranged in the clubhouse after that second inning left him with a pitch count of 52. "Last year, I would get really [ticked] and blow up, but no more of that," Burnett said, referring to his blowup last year after a bad inning against the Rays caused him to smash his hands into the clubhouse door, forcing him to leave the game with an injury.

This year, he's got Nova, a happy-go-lucky type who is as unflappable as Burnett is volatile, to remind him, "Don't get so mad. Don't get so mad."

"Do I have to follow you around everywhere?" Burnett said Nova asked him last night.

"Yeah, maybe you do," Burnett replied.

But most of all, there was Martin, who recognized during spring training that Burnett had a third pitch to go along with his live fastball and nasty hook, as Burnett refers to his curveball.

"It took me 12 years to throw a changeup," Burnett said, "and Russ has me throwing it more and more. Tonight, he kept putting it down and I kept throwing it. Lefties, righties, fastball counts, you name it. I think it's going to be a big pitch for me."

For Martin, Burnett's third pitch is a change he can believe in.

"It doesn't have great differential in velocity but it has good action to it. He works it off the same plane as his fastball and the next thing you know it dips, so he gets a lot of groundballs on it," Martin said. "In spring training, I had to keep telling him, it's a good pitch, you got to trust it, you got to trust it. And I think he's starting to figure it out."

In fact, Burnett said he threw more changeups -- 16 -- than he had in any game in his career except for one: the night in 2005 he threw 44 as a Florida Marlin just to shut up his manager, Jack McKeon, who was insisting he throw it more often.

"I was like, 'You want the damned changeup, well here it is,'" Burnett said.

But on this night, he threw it because he wanted to, and because he knew it would work. "It's all about confidence," he said. "That's what Larry and Russ work on with me."

Between starts, Burnett needs a pitching coach, like anyone else. But on game night, all he needs is a cheerleader. Or two.

"It's just two guys who are trying to take the thinking out of it for me," he said. "When I go out there and start thinking too much, that's when I start to get in trouble. They just encourage me to let it fly."

Burnett's night did not end particularly well -- first, Wieters hit a fastball over the right-field fence and, two batters later, Brian Roberts belted what Burnett called "a pretty good hook" into the Yankees' bullpen, cutting the lead from 7-0 to 7-4 -- but he refused to let it dampen his enthusiasm. He had thrown 115 pitches to that point and had begun to deliver what he calls "NCPs" -- non-competitive pitches, another no-no he and Rothschild are working to eliminate.

"I felt all right, but everything was rolling up there," he said. "Nothing was firm, nothing had any conviction on it that inning. That's my fault. When you're not throwing great, not executing, you got to find a way to get through that. We'll figure it out."

For once, you're tempted to believe him, because even though for A.J. Burnett, this is an April like so many others, you get the feeling it might even carry over into May, and beyond.

"For once, I'm not worrying about anything," he said. "Just having fun."

• • •

Rodriguez's homer was his fourth of the season, and his three RBI gave him 1,839 and moved him into a tie with Ted Williams and Al Simmons for 11th on the all-time list. ... Derek Jeter had two hits to move him into a tie with Barry Bonds (2,935) for 32nd on the all-time list. ... The Yankees bullpen was flawless again, David Robertson, Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera combining for 2 2/3 scoreless, one-hit innings. ... Rivera has now saved five of the Yankees' six wins this year. ... Phil Hughes (0-1, 16.50) goes in search of his wayward fastball Thursday night against RHP Jake Arrieta (1-1, 8.68). First pitch 7:05 p.m.

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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