Commentary

A.J. still dogged by consistency issues

What's the Yankees righty's most consistent trait? His inconsistency, of course

Updated: June 17, 2010, 10:20 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The big question after Wednesday night's Yankees-Phillies game involved a pitcher, the gist of which was as follows: How does he continue to do this after so many years?

It was being asked, predictably enough, of Jamie Moyer, the Phillies' 47-year-old starter -- a man so old his first job was busboy at the Last Supper -- after he had locked down the $200 million fireworks show known as the Yankees lineup for eight innings.

But really, the question should have been asked about A.J. Burnett, the Yankees 33-year-old starter who seems to have been born with everything Moyer lacks, minus one key ingredient: consistency.

We all know how Moyer has done it these past 24 years, by being consistent and persistent, by patiently doling out his collection of slop on both sides of the plate -- but never, never, over the middle -- by believing in his stuff even when common sense and the radar gun tells him not to and by taking bad outings and filing them away in some personal pay-no-mind file where they can do no further damage.

AJ Burnett
AP Photo/Seth WenigManager Joe Girardi said the Yankees will work hard to correct Burnett's recent mound woes.

But much greater minds than this one have yet to figure out how Burnett continues to do what he does, week in and week out, year after year. How a man blessed with an arm than can fire a 95 mph fastball or snap off a curve that can break your back still manages not to be a fully reliable and consistent starting pitcher, 12 years after his major-league debut.

Clearly, the problem with Burnett is not in his arm, shoulder or elbow. It's not in his physique, his delivery or his preparation.

It's all in his head, where unfortunately, there are more places for it to hide than there are in the Yankees clubhouse and where it has proven a most difficult puzzle to solve.

All of Burnett's brilliance was on display for the first four batters of the game. And all his foibles and failures were out there for all to see for the next 17, which took him precisely one out into the fourth inning and took his team hopelessly out of the game.

The final score, 6-3 Phillies, was more indicative of the effectiveness of the Yankee bullpen and the ineptitude, at least in the Bronx, of Philadelphia closer Brad Lidge than the true closeness of the game.

This one was over as soon as Burnett allowed back-to-back homers to Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth to start the third inning, which came after surrendering four runs in the second inning on two walks -- one to Brian Schneider! -- an infield single that hit off his foot, a grounder into right and a screaming triple to right-center field by Shane Victorino.

By the time Joe Girardi came to get him in the fourth, right after he froze and forgot to cover first on a ground ball to Mark Teixeira, the only damage Burnett was doing was to himself.

"I thought, that just tops it off," a disgusted Burnett (6-5) said in the Yankee clubhouse. "We do it day in and day out at spring, and for over 10 years in the big leagues and I guess just had a lapse. It's uncalled for. There's no excuses for it. I just didn't react."

But the crowd certainly did, cheering the appearance of Girardi from the dugout, then booing, with the kind of intensity reserved this season only for the Red Sox and the early days of Javier Vazquez, Burnett's slow trudge off the mound.

And with good reason. Burnett has made 14 starts this season and gotten shelled in six of them. For a pitcher as talented as Burnett, there is simply no logical reason for it.

"I just couldn't do anything right," he said. "I couldn't get ahead of anybody. I threw pitches out of the zone and had no hook for strikes, so I knew it was gonna be a tough night for me."

Girardi, predictably, was protective of the starter.

"He didn't have a lot of command on his fastball," the manager said. "A lot of times it's a relatively fine line to throwing the ball where you want to. You can be just slightly off. That seems to be what's went on the last couple of starts and we'll work hard to correct it."

Jorge Posada, who hadn't caught Burnett since April 23, tried to deflect some of the ire directed toward the right-hander.

"I take most of the blame," Posada said. "We couldn't get on the same page. I haven't caught him, so it's tough. He hasn't seen me back there. It's not always easy when every time he goes out there he's got a new catcher."

True enough. Burnett had been caught in his last three outings by Chad Moeller, with unsatisfactory results the last two -- losses to the Orioles and the Blue Jays -- the latter a six-inning, six-run shellacking.

But that doesn't explain his poor outing against Tampa Bay in May or his disastrous start at Fenway -- his previous low-water mark -- in which he surrendered nine runs in 4 1/3 innings.

For all the wonderful games he has thrown -- he was brilliant in Game 2 of the 2009 World Series against these same Phillies -- the only thing consistent about Burnett throughout his career has been his inconsistency. He has been known to come unglued by a bad outing, a bad inning or even one bad pitch.

Wednesday night, both Burnett and Girardi cited Moyer, who just five days ago got abused by the Red Sox for nine runs in one-plus inning, as an example of a pitcher with a short memory; someone with the ability to put a flameout behind him and come back strong.

"I just went out there, took the ball and told him, 'Keep your head up. We'll get through this,'" Girardi said. "The one thing you don't want is for this to carry over."

Like Moyer, Burnett's patterns have been carrying over for a long, long time. For both of them, the question is the same: How can they keep doing this, year in and year out?

But the answers are very different. And for the Yankees, very disturbing.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

More from ESPNNewYork.com »

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
Follow Wallace on Twitter »  Chat archive »

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE

MORE MLB HEADLINES