Commentary

Burnett has positive showing in debut

It wasn't pretty, but the Yankees pitcher did what the team needed him to do -- win

Updated: April 3, 2011, 11:07 AM ET
By Rob Parker | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- It wasn't suitable for framing.

But A.J. Burnett did what the New York Yankees need him to do this season -- just win.

Burnett started out like Cy Young against the Detroit Tigers and finished more like Houdini en route to the Yankees' 10-6 victory at Yankee Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

In earning his first victory of the season, Burnett gave up three runs on five hits in five innings of work. He struck out six and walked just one on 86 pitches.

We know it's only the second game of the season. And, of course, no division title was ever decided this early. But after the terrible season Burnett (10-15 with a 5.26 ERA) had in 2010, all eyes were on the right-hander. Most wanted to see whether all the help he got from new pitching coach Larry Rothschild in the spring would change his fortunes.

It was so bad last season Burnett had just one appearance in the postseason. And let's face it, had Burnett gotten bombed by the Tigers, fans would have started to panic. Sports-talk radio would have brought the Burnett haters out in full force. Whether some want to admit it or not, Burnett is the key for the Yankees this season. It's simple. If he pitches well, the Yankees have a shot to win a World Series. If not, it will be nearly impossible.

The Yankees have the offense to win it all. They've scored 16 runs in the first two games. Still, it's all about where the pitching will be come October.

"I felt terrible,'' said Burnett, who pitched sick with a throat and sinus infection. "But it was all right. I was good early, and toward the end, you kind of wear down."

For sure, no one wants to throw a parade for a solid five-inning outing. But baseball has a short menu -- wins and losses. Burnett won. That's always a good thing.

"I thought he threw the ball well," manager Joe Girardi said. "And stamina was somewhat of an issue. His ears have been clogged. He's had a hard time breathing.

"That's why I only let him go five innings today. I wanted to get him through that fifth inning because I thought he threw the ball well.''

We know. We know. It's only April.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesA.J. Burnett continued his trend of early-season success with a strong outing against the Tigers.

And yes, Burnett usually pitches well to start the season. In the past two seasons, most of his trouble has come later on. Last season, Burnett started 3-0 with a 2.43 ERA. As a Yankee, he's 6-0 in 11 April starts. In his career, he's 16-9 in April with a 3.82 ERA.

Still, this is a different April, a different season, with the stakes higher for Burnett because the Yankees didn't sign free agent Cliff Lee and lost Andy Pettitte to retirement. "People forget we won a championship with A.J. as our No. 2,'' Alex Rodriguez said. "He has electric stuff.''

And we saw it early on Saturday. Burnett struck out four batters in the first two innings. His location was good. In the third, he gave up a home run on a 3-2 pitch. He also had an easy 1-2-3 inning in the fourth.

In the fifth, however, it appeared as if Burnett was going to come undone -- as he did often last season -- and give up the big lead the Yankees gave him early.

But after the Tigers collected three straight hard-hit singles to start the inning and score a run, Burnett buckled down and made big pitches in a tight spot. With the bases loaded and one out, he got Will Rhymes to ground out to first, cutting the Yankees' advantage to 6-3. It also moved the runners up to first and third.

It was a huge moment as Burnett had to get dangerous Magglio Ordonez out. A single and there would have been a whole new ballgame. Burnett wiggled out of the jam by getting Ordonez to chase a curveball in the dirt for the third out.

"With guys on, I was able to make a pitch,'' Burnett said. "It's a good feeling, to get out of that jam and strike him out in that situation.''

The crowd cheered. Burnett couldn't hear the crowd, though. That's how clogged up his ears are.

The Yankees added three more runs in the bottom of the fifth and upped their lead to 9-3. There was no need to bring Burnett -- battling stamina issues with his illness -- back out in the sixth. He was done for the day. "I felt I could do more, but then I couldn't,'' Burnett said. "It's a positive step."

And although it wasn't picture-perfect, it was something to build on.

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