Yankees can't count on A.J. Burnett
Now 30-30 as a Yank, righty's A-plus talent has continually produced C-plus results
NEW YORK -- A.J. Burnett was wearing camouflage pants and a dark T-shirt exposing his tatted-up arms as he stood in the home clubhouse, looking more like a weekend warrior preparing for a game of paintball than a big league pitcher preparing for a historic start.
Yes, it would be historic in a way you would imagine Burnett making history -- in bitter defeat. In the top of the sixth Friday night, right out of left field, Burnett became the very first man in 108 years of New York Yankees baseball to strike out four batters in one inning.
Only nobody was spraying champagne afterward, and nobody was shoving a pie in Burnett's unsuspecting face. Instead, the man most responsible for Colorado Rockies 4, Yankees 2 struck a subdued postgame pose at his locker, talking about this misguided two-seamer and that misguided four-seamer as another round of evidence was collected in support of this inevitable verdict:
Burnett is not a Yankee to be counted on. Ever.
Not in the context of winning a World Series title, and not on a staff that features one Rock of Gibraltar and a parade of broken parts from the island of misfit toys.
CC Sabathia needs help, big postseason help, because he didn't sign on to be a one-and-done champ in the Bronx. He said winning his first title in 2009 "makes you hungry for more," the way Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte were always hungry for more.
Sabathia will be eyeing that opt out in his contract up, down and sideways if his general manager, Brian Cashman, doesn't come to the rescue and somehow, some way, find him the kind of worthy rotation sidekick(s) Doc Halladay has in Philly.
The Yankees will make it to the playoffs with Burnett as their second-best starter, that much is true. But they won't be honoring the franchise mission statement and upgrading manager Joe Girardi's jersey number from 28 to 29.
"A.J.," Girardi said, "has always been a guy whose mechanics can be a little complicated at times."
Burnett's mechanics aren't the only things about him that get complicated. On the mound, his issues have issues. When Girardi pulled him with one out in the seventh, Burnett was seen muttering in anger, "That's unbelievable. One hundred and five pitches."
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As if he'd earned the benefit of the doubt to throw 10 or 15 more.
Please. Burnett is always one flick of his fickle right wrist away from a nuclear meltdown, just like he was in last year's ALCS loss to Texas. His Yankees career record now stands at 30-30, an indictment of an A-plus talent who too often settles for C-plus results.
"He struggled with his command," Girardi said of his starter, now 7-6 on the year.
Burnett surrendered seven hits, five walks and two homers (one to Jason Giambi, of all people) in 6 1/3 innings. The walks, Burnett conceded, "kind of took us out of the game," as did the fact he spent too much time and energy on his two-seam movement rather than establishing his more direct four-seam heat.
"Bottom line, I was under a lot of pitches," Burnett said. "My arm was dragging."
His adjustment was filed under too little, too late -- even if he minimized the damage in bases-loaded crises in the third and fourth before whiffing those four Rockies in the sixth.
Burnett needed some help from his catcher, of course, and Russell Martin obliged by trying to backhand a two-out strike three in the dirt rather than drop to his knees and block it with his chest. Chris Nelson made it to first base, allowing Burnett to face Todd Helton and strike out the side all over again.
"That's just luck, I guess," Burnett said.
The game wasn't stopped for a photo op with Whitey Ford and Don Larsen. Yogi Berra didn't jump into A.J.'s arms.
Burnett wasn't getting his Yankeeography out of this one, not after acting disgusted in the next inning when his manager decided 105 pitches were enough.
There's always hope for the future. Always.” -- A.J. Burnett, after Friday's loss to the Rockies
"I've got to work on that," Burnett said. "It's never personal. That manager [Girardi] takes care of us better than a lot of managers do. ... It's just a matter of never wanting to come out. I'm not mad he took me out, just mad that I had to come out."
Burnett isn't living through the June nightmare that consumed him in 2010, but he does have a losing record for the month and he did cost his team a chance to open the homestand by moving past the Red Sox and into first place.
"He pitched well enough to win tonight," Girardi argued.
Burnett actually had a plan, too, or so it seemed. In the hours before Friday night's start, he stood in those camouflage pants and called out to Martin to join him in the back of the locker room for a chat with pitching coach Larry Rothschild.
When Russell responded that he was getting prepared to stretch, Burnett held out his hands, turned his palms toward the ceiling, and slowly moved them up and down. "Stretch, or hitters?" Burnett said. "Stretch, or hitters? Come on, what's more important?"
A smiling Russell jogged over to the pitcher's stall and pulled up a chair next to Burnett and Rothschild before the threesome started their study session.
Soon enough Burnett would fail the exam. He gave up Giambi's home run, gave up another homer to Troy Tulowitzki, and basically performed like a guy who can't wait to find a way to blow Game 2 of the division series in the fall.
"There's always hope for the future," the losing pitcher said. "Always."
Just not when your hope rests in Burnett's right hand, and your future is supposed to be littered with ticker tape and soaked in champagne.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter"