Commentary

Burnett gets chance to stop Yanks' skid

Talented but inconsistent right-hander takes mound against the Twins on Tuesday

Updated: May 25, 2010, 8:58 PM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- When you listen to greats in the Yankees clubhouse -- the CC Sabathias, the Derek Jeters and the Mariano Riveras -- talk about A.J. Burnett, it sounds as if they should be describing a future Hall of Famer, not a barely over .500 career starter.

From Sabathia to Jeter to Rivera, all you hear about is the uniqueness of Burnett's combination of size, movement and velocity.

What is left unsaid and to the imagination: Do they trust Burnett? Do they feel as if he is the guy they want on the mound when things are not going right?

And things are not going right for the Yankees at the moment.

Burnett starts Tuesday night in Minnesota for a suddenly reeling team. It's the type of game that you should want your $82.5 million starter on the mound.

Burnett, though, is a bit of pitching diva. He needs everything exactly right to perform at his optimum level. That is why his average season is 14-12 with a 3.84 ERA. This year, he is on pace to do that again. He is 4-2 with a 3.86 ERA.

He goes into the new Target Field after a terrible 2-5 week in the Bronx for the Yankees. They didn't put a dagger in the Red Sox; they were bludgeoned by the Rays; and they allowed the falling-apart Mets to temporarily put things back together.

This brings us back to Burnett. This is an opportunity to build trust because the Yankees need a good outing to change the conversation. The Jays and Red Sox are inching up on the Yankees, who are a bad series or two away from possibly falling into -- gasp! -- fourth place. Burnett will pick up the ball with the first chance to make sure that doesn't happen.

On the road, Burnett is much more fragile. This season, he is 2-1 with a 4.99 ERA away from Yankee Stadium and 2-1 with a 2.60 ERA in the Bronx.

Burnett is often spectacular, throwing with velocity and movement that makes for uncomfortable at-bats for hitters -- as his 6-foot-4 frame can make it feel as if he is pitching from third base instead of the pitcher's mound.

"His fastball is unbelievable," Sabathia said. "When he is throwing strikes, he is one of the best pitchers in the league."

Sabathia meant that as a compliment, but that is the inconsistent nature of Burnett. There is always a "when" or an "if" when talking about him.

When he throws strikes.

If his head is right.

It was last October after his first postseason start that he admitted he was so hyped up he had trouble breathing against the Twins. It was at home in the Bronx and Burnett ended up pitching well, anyway, throwing six innings of one-run ball. Of course, there was a famous "if."

He could only pitch right if he had the right catcher.

Even though last year this meant benching Jeter's buddy, Jorge Posada, Jeter hypes Burnett's prowess. Jeter was one of the Yankees that urged GM Brian Cashman to pursue Burnett. Jeter had grown tired of seeing Burnett's 6-4 delivery that made it feel as if he was throwing from behind the left ear hole on Jeter's helmet.

"It looks like he is going to hit you," Jeter said. "A.J. is as nasty as any pitcher in baseball. He is throwing mid-to-upper 90s and his ball is not straight.

"The best way I can put it, is it is an uncomfortable at-bat."

Still, there is always the mindset question. Nobody in the Yankees clubhouse has a stronger mind than Rivera. When he sees Burnett, he notices his "rubber arm" and his attitude on the mound.

Rivera said Burnett has that, "I'm going to get you," look to him.

In Minnesota, the circumstances will not be ideal. Burnett is on the road in a new ballpark. He is being asked to stop the Yankees' slump, which raises the $82.5 million question: Do you trust him?

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

More from ESPNNewYork.com

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

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