Commentary

A.J. Burnett was right (only) choice

Erratic righty in non-elimination game is better idea than ace Sabathia on short rest

Updated: October 19, 2010, 2:23 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

Joe Girardi and staff made the right call on Sunday when they chose to stick with their rotation for the remainder of the American League Championship Series.

That means sticking with A.J. Burnett on Tuesday in Game 4 and CC Sabathia making his final appearance in the series Wednesday in Game 5.

It is the right call because, frankly, it is the only call.

"We believe in A.J." Girardi said. "I know it's been a tough year for him at times. But we believe in A.J."

[+] EnlargeJoe Girardi
John Munson/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireJoe Girardi's Yankees need a confident A.J. Burnett on the mound Tuesday night.

It's never been clear all season exactly who "we" consists of in the New York Yankees' decision-making hierarchy, but it is obvious Girardi is not making decisions like this on his own.

Certainly GM Brian Cashman is involved, and pitching coach Dave Eiland. It would surprise no one if Billy Eppler, the Yankees' pro personnel director, had a voice in the conversation, as well as Mike Fishman, their director of quantitative analysis, a fancy term for numbers geek.

And who knows if other voices, such as that of Hal Steinbrenner -- the man who signed off on Burnett's five-year, $82.5 million contract that still has three years to run -- were heard from as well?

But after all the talk and all the hand-wringing and all the flipping through binders, the call turned out to be an obvious one, because really, what else could the Yankees do? Force Sabathia into emergency duty and push Burnett out of the rotation again? And besides, all you're really doing is buying yourself a day.

Barring a rainout on Tuesday, there is simply no getting around the reality that A.J. Burnett had to pitch one of these games. The Yankees are better off pitching him in Game 4.

To do otherwise would have shown panic and it would have shown fear, two things you never want to show to your opponent, or to your own clubhouse.

It also would have forced the Yankees to use Burnett in a possible elimination game, and to ask Sabathia to do something that, right now, he might not be capable of, which is pitching on short rest.

With Cliff Lee besting Andy Pettitte in Monday's Game 3, the Yankees go into Game 4 trailing the Texas Rangers 2-1.

Certainly it is better to have Burnett pitching that game, when there is still a little wiggle room, than a Game 5 when there might be no margin for error.

As great as Sabathia was all season, he has been nearly as bad in the postseason. Whether the workload has worn him down (he threw 237 2/3 innings this season and nearly 3,600 pitches, just about the same as he did in 2009) or the disruption in his regular schedule (he went seven days between starts before Game 1 of the ALDS vs. the Twins and 10 days between that game and Game 1 of the ALCS vs. the Rangers) has thrown him off, Sabathia has been nearly as unreliable in October as Burnett was from April through September.

Maybe getting the big fella back on his regular schedule will get him back to his customary level of performance. But pitching him in Game 4 on short rest certainly looked like a recipe for disaster.

That -- and admittedly, this is a hypothetical, a word Girardi would prefer to see expunged from his news conferences, and maybe the dictionary, too -- could well have thrust Burnett into the unwanted role of season-saver with the Yankees sitting one loss away from October golf.

And who knows, maybe Burnett will deliver on the promise he has always shown but rarely kept, as he did under similar doubts in Game 2 of last year's World Series.

It probably means nothing, but after Saturday's loss in Texas, Burnett, who is normally as polite and mild-mannered a ballplayer as you will ever meet, got a bit feisty with the crowd of reporters that spilled in front of his locker while interviewing Sabathia, his locker neighbor in the visitors clubhouse.

"I hate to be that guy," he said to one reporter, "but beat it."

He wasn't smiling. So maybe the criticisms and the doubts have finally awakened something inside Burnett that will raise the level of his game Tuesday night. All along, he has insisted he would pitch and pitch well in these playoffs, and finally, he will get his chance.

"We set up our rotation for a number of reasons, and we're just staying with it," Girardi said. "Phil Hughes has never thrown on short rest. We have Andy Pettitte, who is coming off an injury. There's a lot of things that go into making up your rotation. And we believe in A.J."

That may have been the last thing Girardi mentioned, but the truth is, he and whoever else is calling the shots is telling the truth on this one.

They have to believe in A.J., because they really have no other choice.

And neither do you.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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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.
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