Commentary

Burnett emerging as a hero for Yankees

The veteran righty pitched well in defeat on Monday, and has had an outstanding April

Updated: April 26, 2011, 12:55 AM ET
By Rob Parker | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- A.J. Burnett should be 5-0.

Instead, Burnett picked up his first loss of the season on Monday night. It wasn't his fault -- at all.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesAfter a disastrous 2010, A.J. Burnett has showed significant improvement this season.

For sure, Burnett hasn't been perfect in 2011. But he has been exactly what the New York Yankees needed him to be this season: rock solid.

Burnett easily could have been on the winning side of the Yankees' game against the Chicago White Sox at Yankee Stadium. Instead, some guy named Philip Humber no-hit the Yankees through 6 1/3 innings before Alex Rodriguez finally singled, and the Yankees lost 2-0, mustering just three hits on the night.

The Yankees have all kinds of problems when you talk about their pitching these days. But on the same day starter Phil Hughes had a setback and could be lost for more time than originally thought, Burnett showed he can be the No. 2 starter he signed up to be three years ago.

It's a big step, a comforting thought.

Burnett (3-1, 3.52 ERA) hasn't just been lucky in the early going, he has earned his keep out on the mound. The righty turned in a solid performance on Monday, allowing just one run on three hits in eight innings of work. It was the first time he pitched eight full innings since May 30 last season against the Cleveland Indians.

"He did a great job of competing out there, working his way out of a couple of jams,'' said catcher Russell Martin about Burnett. "But for the most part, he had great command.

"I feel like he keeps getting better every time out."

No one knew what to expect from Burnett this season. After all, he was terrible a year ago, going 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA. But he has come through this month, steadying a ship that was taking in water in the rotation.

"I'm glad I was able to go deeper in the game,'' said Burnett, whose longest outing in his first four starts was 6 1/3 innings. "I just need to get consistency and keep working because we have a long way to go."

Still, a lot has been accomplished so far. Take Monday night's game, for example.

Burnett came in undefeated and should have been looking for his fifth victory in April, had Mariano Rivera not blown his fourth last week. The White Sox were in a major-league drought. They entered Monday night with an 18-inning scoreless streak after back-to-back shutout losses in Detroit.

With the White Sox struggling, most probably thought the advantage would go to Burnett. In reality, it was a scary scenario for any pitcher. You know a team -- especially a team with mashers in its lineup like the White Sox -- will break out of it sooner or later. And the fear here was it was going to be sooner rather than later.

Burnett, though, was up to the challenge. Though he wasn't crisp and pitched from behind at times, Burnett made big out-pitches when need be. Chicago's lone run off Burnett in the fourth inning was aided by center fielder Curtis Granderson, who played a leadoff single into a double to start the frame. Carlos Quentin would eventually come around to score on a groundout.

That's all the White Sox got off him.

That was never the case a year ago. And that's why all eyes were on the 34-year-old right-hander coming into the season. Most wanted to see if all the spring training help he got from new pitching coach Larry Rothschild would fix all that went wrong a year ago.

Yes, we've seen Burnett pitch well in April in the past. In fact, Monday's loss was his first April loss as a Yankee -- he was 8-0 in in his past 14 April starts. In Aprils gone by, though, there was no pressure. This April, there clearly was.

The Yankees were going to need the old Burnett this season -- the 2009 Burnett -- after they couldn't sign free agent Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte retired.

But no one could have realized that they would need him this badly. The Yankees' rotation is in ruins just a few weeks into the season. Hughes is on the disabled list, and now Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia are bringing up the rear in the rotation.

But the Yankees have A.J. Burnett to lean on. Yes, A.J. Burnett.

"He pitched great today,'' Granderson said. "Too bad we weren't able to supply him with any runs, it was a tough one.''

It was a tough one, but Burnett has been one tough cookie this first month of the season -- just what the Yankees needed.

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