Commentary

The end is near ... if A.J. remains No. 2

Earth avoids Apocalypse; Yankees won't be as lucky with Burnett as CC's wingman

Updated: May 22, 2011, 2:41 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- A.J. Burnett waved his arm to acknowledge the standing ovation, then disappeared into the dugout for the ritualistic round of pats and handshakes and atta-boys that forever mark the occasion of a quality start.

The Stadium crowd was feeling good in the seventh inning, really good, for these two distinct reasons:

• The world did not descend into the fiery pits of hell at 6 p.m.

• Burnett did not suffer his own unique version of an apocalyptic meltdown at any point thereafter.

Yes, ol' A.J. survived a 30-pitch, three-hit, two-run first inning against the New York Mets and did what he failed to do in Tampa his last start. He fought back from the brink with a performance that didn't exactly wake up the echoes in Cooperstown, but did ease the growing concern that Burnett was back to listening to the devil on his left shoulder rather than the angel on his right.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesA.J. Burnett salutes the fans, who had no reason to give him the Bronx cheer on this night.

Only here's the thing: The New York Yankees have the most quoted mission statement in sports -- winning it all, of course, year after year after year -- and that chief organizational priority can't be served with Burnett holding down the No. 2 spot on the 2011 staff.

The 100 small-picture pitches he threw at the Buffalo Bison/New York Mets didn't alter the big-picture truth that these Yanks can't expect to get through a postseason series that requires Burnett to start two games.

Joe Girardi has other problems for sure, including his lack of pop in the outfield corners and a lineup of stars getting old enough to take up permanent residence in Monument Park.

But Burnett's unpredictability will be a perilous hurdle to clear in October, assuming the Yankees get there and assuming Brian Cashman doesn't deal for King Felix or some other member of a royal pitching family between now and then.

When Burnett was done allowing three runs on six hits over 6 1/3 innings in Saturday night's 7-3 victory, Girardi spoke of the pitcher's improved mechanics, location, curveball and consistency. "I just see a different guy," Girardi said.

I don't. I still see a wildly talented pitcher who had a strong April and May last year before he devolved into a clueless and sad spectacle on the mound.

I still see the guy who imploded in Tampa on Monday, the guy who can go from bleeding to hemorrhaging faster than any pitcher alive.

Sure, it's possible Burnett will remain a more focused and reliable force this time around. But is anyone in the Yankees front office really willing to bet the season on that?

"The less hard I am on myself," Burnett said, "the more I'm able to turn the page. … I can't let things bother me. When I do, it's going to explode."

You know, in that world-ending way of his.

In spring training, after spending some offseason time with Cashman and his new pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, Burnett sounded like something of a liberated man. He spent some time with his wife in the Bahamas, attended some concerts staged by his favorite band, Disturbed, and heard nothing but encouraging things from the same fans who had jeered him from a safe distance in the Bronx.

He called the offseason fan support "amazing," yet understood that another 10-15 year with a historically wretched 5.26 ERA and a devastating ALCS gopher ball to boot would inspire a different response from the paying public.

"I realized just how important I was last year for the first time in a long time," Burnett said then. "There's been a lot said; why wouldn't there be after what I did last year? So it's my job to go out and shut mouths and do what I can do and not worry about that."

Saturday night, Burnett was an actual study in resourcefulness after his first inning scared the life out of the Stadium crowd. He threw only five more pitches in the second, third and fourth innings combined than he threw in the unruly first, when Bad A.J. appeared to be one hanging curve away from body-slamming Good A.J. to the dirt.

But Burnett wouldn't let what he called a "good, little, scrappy team" Justin Turner him to death. "I wasn't going to let anything bother me," he said.

So he didn't. His catcher, Russell Martin, helped him out with a two-run homer in the second, and soon enough Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Alex Rodriguez put on a fireworks show for the increasingly homer-happy Yanks.

Burnett remained the most important figure in the winners' locker room, anyway. When his stuff is on, Martin said, "There's no way he should give up more than three runs."

Burnett didn't give up more than three runs to the Mets, and the bullpen kept those pesky National Leaguers down. Girardi then pulled up to a live microphone and went on about that "different guy" who had just improved his record to 5-3.

"I don't see any reasons why that would change," the manager said.

I do. Burnett is trying to fight the good fight by ordering himself to stay calm and composed in the face of in-game adversity, and on an $82.5 million contract it's the least he can do.

But as the pitcher himself admitted, "It's way easier said than done."

If Burnett can be a third or fourth starter on a championship team, he's still too fickle to be CC Sabathia's right-handed man. Burnett is too much of a postseason risk to explode (his word) when things go wrong, leaving his hangdog body language a bad mission statement fit.

Let's face it: A.J. Burnett did a nice job against the Mets on an encouraging May night in the Bronx. But if the Yankees want a credible shot at winning it all, they need to get their undisputed No. 1, Sabathia, a brand new No. 2.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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