Commentary

Battery powers A.J.'s re-June-enation

Russell Martin keeping Burnett grounded, playful as high-strung righty thrives

Updated: June 30, 2011, 8:58 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- A.J. Burnett and Russell Martin haven't been working together very long, but already they have come up with a little game that both of them find amusing.

It starts with Burnett, who tries his best to bounce a curveball in front of the plate and have it roll all the way to the backstop.

And usually, it ends with Martin, who spends much of his evenings with Burnett flopping around in the dirt like a goldfish on a kitchen floor.

The real object of the game, of course, is to get batters flailing at the pitch Burnett calls his "hook," his swing-and-miss pitch, the one that sets him apart from dozens of other interchangeable flamethrowers.

"I try to get 'em by him every time just because he told me I can't," Burnett said.

"Never gonna happen," agreed Martin.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
Noah K. Murray/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireA.J. Burnett acknowledges the fans during a standing O that would've been unthinkable this time last year.

Still, Martin admitted that on the average night of playing catch with A.J., "I definitely get a workout. I know I can't block 'em all, but I get most of em."

Burnett and Martin played their little game for seven-plus innings Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium, interrupted briefly by a three-run homer that was Martin's first home run in more than a month, and punctuated by a rare event in Burnett's up-and-down career with the New York Yankees, a standing ovation from the home crowd as he left the mound.

They are not the oddest tandem in the 2011 Yankees clubhouse -- that honor belongs to Burnett and Ivan Nova, the 24-year-old from the Dominican Republic who has become something of a protege to the 34-year-old tattoo-festooned Arkansan -- but they may well be the most successful.

Between Burnett's arm and Martin's bat, the Yankees rolled to a neat and easy 5-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday night at the Stadium. It was Burnett's eighth victory of the season, a number he did not reach until July 23 last season. More importantly, it was his third victory in the month of June, a number he didn't achieve last year, well, at all.

And most importantly, practically nothing was neat or easy for Burnett last year. He never seemed happy with his catcher, his pitches or himself, really. And consequently, no one with or around the Yankees was very happy with him.

It would be foolish to declare this a New A.J., or to believe that all his problems are solved, but it would be just as foolish not to recognize that he is certainly an improved A.J.

And the importance of his relationship with Martin in his rejuvenation, or re-June-enation, if you will, is impossible to ignore.

Last year, the only game he would have wanted to play with Jorge Posada would have been hide-and-seek, and neither would have bothered to look for the other. In his two previous seasons here, Burnett had personal catchers such as Jose Molina and Francisco Cervelli.

But this year, if he and Martin have not quite been inseparable -- they are very different personalities, as are most people with A.J. Burnett -- they have at least been indispensable to each other's success.

And it all goes back to their little game. Burnett credits Martin's ability and willingness to block pitches with his increased confidence in throwing his curveball.

"He gives you a lot of confidence in yourself out there," Burnett said. "And when you know a guy's on the same page with you, it makes him fun to work with. He knows where I need to throw that pitch and most of the time, he knows where it's going to go. It's fun being able to do what I want to do and not worry about it."

Jorge Posada and Russell Martin
AP Photo/Kathy KmonicekRussell Martin's ability to block the ball behind the plate, not to mention his three-run homer on Wednesday, has helped Burnett bounce back.

Confidence is key for all athletes but for Burnett, it's as crucial as oxygen. It was failures of confidence as much as of stuff last year that caused him to lose all five of his starts in June, a horrendous month in which his ERA was 11.35.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that this year, Burnett came in knowing he had to make adjustments. Burnett says the adjustment he made was an attitude adjustment.

"I mean, it's all mental, man," he said. "Sad but true. It's believing in all of my pitches and believing in myself. Normally in the past it was all fastball, fastball, fastball. Tonight, I threw some changeups in tough counts that were big pitches. I never would have done that last year."

One of those changeups got Corey Hart to hit into an inning-ending double play in the fourth, killing off a Milwaukee threat when it was a 4-1 game. Another ended a sixth-inning threat when the Brewers, already having scored one run, had runners on first and third with one out and the Yankees up 4-2.

According to Burnett, his confidence comes not only from within, but from without. "When you're on that mound and the catcher's got this voice that you know is coming from the heart, it makes you believe in that pitch," he said.

Burnett said his rapport with Martin is the best he's enjoyed with a catcher since he and Rod Barajas hooked up in 2008 for Burnett's best season in the majors, when he went 18-10 with a 4.07 ERA for the Blue Jays, the season that convinced the Yankees to sink five years and $82.5 million into him.

Martin, a low-key, almost cerebral type, never knew Bad A.J. but he seems to know people, and pitchers. "I just try to keep it real with him," Martin said. "He's human, and when he's not doing well he gets frustrated. I just try to keep an even keel with him, don't get too high or too low with him, and just keep it simple. When he's pitching well, it's easy. He has been pitching well for the most part. He just keeps battling out there. He's really doing all the work."

The Yankees marvel at the way Martin has been able to build relationships with every one of their starting pitchers, despite never having played in the American League before and doing very little catching in spring training due to his recovery from offseason knee surgery.

"It's not easy coming into a new staff where you don't really know anyone and have to learn it as quickly as possible," Joe Girardi said. "And he just took it upon himself to figure this out and be a positive influence on this pitching staff. He's been a huge addition for us."

Martin's defense has been such a key part of his game that it was hardly noticed that, in recent weeks, his average had fallen to .229 and he had not hit a home run since May 24, a span of 68 at-bats, the longest of his career.

That ended when he belted an 0-2 fastball from Shaun Marcum (7-3) for the three-run shot that was the ultimate game-winner. Martin has suffered from a bruised toe and back spasms this year, dings that certainly contributed to his declining production.

But as Girardi said, "I've never seen him get down on himself about his offense. I think he's able to separate it. He saves a lot of runs behind the plate for us. Even though those don't go on your bubblegum card, to me they're RBIs."

And what he does for Burnett might just as well be counted as assists. June is over and A.J. Burnett is still getting along with his catcher, is still keeping his head together and, most importantly, is still a winning pitcher.

He does have one small complaint, however.

"I didn't get one hook past him tonight," he said. "Damn."

Said Martin: "Not gonna happen."

The Yankees can only hope this little game goes on for the rest of the season.

NOTES: Burnett got some huge help from his other defenders, as well. Curtis Granderson did his best Willie Mays impression in the second, running down Mat Gamel's drive to deep center, making the catch with his back to home plate and firing a strike to Robinson Cano, who tossed to Mark Teixeira to double up Hart, who was already between second and third. And in the sixth, Eduardo Nunez -- who later in the game committed his 10th error in 45 games with a throw past Teixeira at first -- saved a run with a stop in the hole with the bases loaded. ... Jorge Posada lined a home run off a fan in the first row of the right-field seats in the sixth to complete the scoring. At first, the umpires ruled the ball in play and it appeared Posada, who was in his trot, would be thrown out between first and second, but after a brief review, the shot was ruled a home run. Posada did not mind being asked to run the bases a second time. ... In the seventh, David Robertson got into trouble, allowing a hard single to Prince Fielder to give the Brewers runners at the corners with two out, and out of it by blowing a 95-mph fastball past Hart. ... Mariano Rivera worked a 1-2-3 ninth for his 21st save. ... CC Sabathia (10-4, 3.25), who was a Brewer for a few minutes in 2008, will face his old team in Thursday afternoon's finale, against LHP Randy Wolf (6-4, 3.20), first pitch at 1:05 p.m. ET.

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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