Does Burnett have a Fenway phobia?
Pitcher says no, but the evidence shows there could be an issue here
BOSTON -- On most nights of the baseball season, in most of the ballparks around the majors, A.J. Burnett's initials stand for Allan James.
On nights like Sunday night at Fenway Park, the A.J. stands for Another Javy.
Already, the Yankees had grown accustomed to the occasional appearance of Bad A.J., the pitcher who after running off three or four excellent outings, could suddenly throw in a stinker.
But what happened to Burnett in the finale of a three-game series at Fenway Park is becoming an especially bad habit. It goes beyond the realm of Bad A.J. and crosses over into the darker side of, well, Javier Vazquez territory.
On a night in which -- thanks in part to the brilliance of Alex Rodriguez nemesis Dallas Braden -- the Yankees had an opportunity to finally overtake the Tampa Bay Rays atop the AL East, Burnett morphed from Bad A.J. to Another Javy. As a result, the Yankees lost 9-3, and were denied the chance to sweep the Red Sox on their home field.
The cause was Burnett, whose 4 1/3-inning, nine-run (eight earned) performance was the worst turned in by any Yankees starter this season. It took them out of the game early, may have contributed to the ejection of their manager, and earned A-Rod and Derek Jeter an early night.
Worst of all, it raised the possibility that Fenway Park is in A.J. Burnett's head. If so, he'd best get it out of there pronto.
"I'm not even gonna look into that," Burnett said. "I'm not pitching bad because I'm overamped or anything for this series. Not to take anything away from them, but I think I woulda got pounded whoever I faced tonight."
For Burnett's psyche, which often takes a pounding from the pitcher himself after nights like this, that is probably the wise course of action.
For the rest of us, his struggles at Fenway since he became a Yankee are worth looking into.
So far this season, Burnett had been enjoying the best start of his career, winning four of his first six starts and posting a minuscule 1.99 ERA. Coming into Sunday's game, the one so-so outing on his record came, of course, at Fenway in the second game of the season. That night, Burnett allowed four runs in five innings of a game the Yankees came back to win 6-4 on Curtis Granderson's home run.
That was by far Burnett's best Boston outing as a Yankee. Last year, they sent him out three times and he came back with two losses and a whopping 14.21 ERA. After Sunday night, his cumulative record as a Yankee in the most hostile of territories is 0-3 with a 12.68 ERA. In five starts, he has surrendered 32 earned runs in 22 innings pitched -- including eight home runs, the latest a fifth-inning blast by Jeremy Hermida that chased him from Sunday night's game.
"I felt like I had a good hook tonight, but I didn't have a good heater," said Burnett (now 4-1, 3.40 ERA). "Pitches I needed to keep down were coming up, and pitches I needed to keep away were leaking over. But I'm not gonna beat myself up too bad. Well, I will, a little bit, but I won't let it affect me."
Joe Girardi, who got tossed from the game arguing a called third strike to Marcus Thames in the fourth, might well have anticipated the imminent appearance of Bad A.J. before getting himself run. But he refused to place much importance on Burnett's very real struggles at Fenway.
"I don't make too much of it, because if that becomes your focus, then it changes the way you pitch," Girardi said. "I hope he doesn't make too much of this start, and I told him not to. I told him, 'Bounce back, just like you're capable of doing and we've seen you do so many times.'"
Their official denials aside, it's fair to assume that the Yankees place special emphasis on a player's performance against the Red Sox, and especially in Fenway Park, when deciding whether or not to sign him.
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And there's little doubt that Burnett's stellar record against Boston in its home park in 2008 as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays -- in four starts he was 2-0 with a 2.60 ERA here -- was one of the reasons they signed him to a five-year, $82.5 million contract before the 2009 season.
And luckily for all of them, the Yankees don't return here until the last weekend of the season, by which point all the key issues of the AL East argument are likely to have been hashed out.
But there will be games here again next year, and the year after that and the year after that, and odds are A.J. Burnett will be called upon to pitch some of them.
"The whole rivalry thing has nothing to do with it," he said. "It gives you guys something to write about, I guess, but the simple fact is, I just have not made pitches here."
That is a state of affairs that needs to change in order for A.J. to stand for Allan James, instead of Another Javy.
Romulo Sanchez made his Yankees debut in relief of Burnett and pitched a solid 3 2/3 innings, allowing no runs, one hit and one walk. Thames had an adventurous day in left field, misplaying a line drive by Hermida into a two-base error that scored the Sox's first run of the game, and taking the scenic route to several routine flies. Said Girardi: "He had kind of a tough night tonight. It was a windy night, though, and it seemed to be affecting the ball in left field more than anything. But he's got to be able to play out there for us. That's the bottom line." Nick Swisher continues to swing a hot bat, homering in the fourth inning and singling in the eighth. His average is up to .306. Jeter went 1-for-4 and fell below .300 (to .297) for the first time all season. Jorge Posada returned to the lineup for the first time since leaving Wednesday's game with a calf strain and went hitless in four at-bats. With Sergio Mitre starting the series opener in Detroit on Monday night, the Yankees are expected to make a roster move to shore up their depleted bullpen.