Commentary

Burnett gives fans reason to cheer

Yanks' bullpen blows lead, bats look anemic again -- but A.J.'s day is silver lining

Updated: July 2, 2010, 11:02 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- It would be easy to characterize Friday afternoon's 6-1 Yankees loss to the Blue Jays, a tedious affair that took 11 innings and nearly four hours to complete, as the simple result of yet another implosion by an increasingly unreliable bullpen.

After all, you had Joba Chamberlain, the Eighth-Inning Man, unable to keep the Blue Jays from tying the game in the eighth inning, and David Robertson, for whom a suitable role has been neither designated nor discovered, melting down to start the 11th, followed by a ride down the Chan Ho Parkway, which ended in a predictably messy pileup.

And just like that, what looked like a well-pitched and fairly routine 1-0 Yankees win at 3:30 in the afternoon became a disaster by 5 o'clock in the evening.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
Zach Ornitz/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PresswireA.J. Burnett can't make all the Yankees' problems go away, but his performance Friday helped soften the blow of a lousy loss.

But that would be only a surface reading of the events that took place at Yankee Stadium. If you look a little deeper than the final score, you will discover that amid all the negatives -- did we mention that the offense managed to score just one run despite drawing six walks by going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position? -- there was one glaring positive.

For one day at least, A.J. Burnett returned to being a useful member of the starting rotation.

If you think that is small consolation on the day of what felt like a big loss, consider this: Nothing really changed with the bullpen. Chamberlain, Robertson and Park have been unreliable all year, and on Friday merely ran true to form once again.

And over the past 24 games, the Yankees have been something less than the Bronx Bombers, scoring four runs or fewer in 17 of those games, being shut out twice and, now, being held to a single run -- this one in the first inning, followed by 10 blanks -- in two other games.

Nor did the AL East standings change, though they tightened up just a tad. Still, the Yankees started the day leading the division and ended it the same way.

The only thing that was really different Friday was Burnett, and that change was nothing but positive.

"It felt good," said Burnett, who, having lost five straight games in June and amassed a titanic 11.35 ERA for the month, pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings in his first July outing, limiting the Jays to just four hits and leaving the Stadium mound for the first time since Memorial Day weekend to the sound of cheers rather than jeers.

"For them to send me off the mound that way," Burnett said, "shows you how much they care."

The improvement in Burnett, a vital part of the starting rotation, is a lot more significant than some silly and sloppy loss to the Blue Jays, which is easy to blame on the bullpen but really was the fault of the suddenly sputtering Yankees offense.

Yes, Joba was lousy. Needing only to shut down the Jays for one inning and hand the game over to Mariano Rivera, he failed again at his designated responsibility, walking Jose Bautista with one out and allowing two-out singles to Adam Lind, a .204 hitter, and Aaron Hill, who came in batting .191, to push the tying run across.

That rendered Burnett's performance a footnote, and Robertson's flameout -- he surrendered three hits and walked one batter intentionally, allowing the Blue Jays to take a 2-1 lead and leaving the bases full for Park, who quickly cleared them -- reduced it further to a regrettable afterthought.

But had the Yankees' hitters -- particularly Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano, both of whom struck out in the third inning with the bases loaded and none out, and Francisco Cervelli, who tapped into a double play when the Yankees had first and second and none out in the sixth -- been able to deliver just one timely hit, the bullpen likely never would have gotten the opportunity to do its dastardly deeds in the first place.

"We're scuffling a bit right now," Joe Girardi said, with impressive understatement. "All offenses go through it."

But there's only one offense with $100 million worth of hitters stacked in the first five spots in its batting order, with the leader among all active players in hits (Derek Jeter) and home runs (Rodriguez) and the leading batter in the major leagues (Cano), not to mention Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher.

Those guys have conspired to score just nine runs over the past four games and accordingly have lost three of them.

For all the talk about how badly the Yankees needed their absent pitching coach, Dave Eiland, to return and fix up Burnett, now is the time for their batting coach, Kevin Long, to start mending some of their hitters.

Burnett might not be patched up for good, but he certainly looked watertight Friday, breezing through a strong first inning in which he threw 11 of his first 13 pitches for strikes and not indulging in the kind of public self-flagellation after allowing a hit or a walk that has caused his unraveling in so many previous starts.

"I just felt confident today," he said. "My focus was better, and I didn't beat myself."

Eiland, who doesn't really walk across the Hudson River to get home every night, seems to have done a great job with Burnett and now has his work cut out for him with anyone in the Yankees bullpen not named Mariano.

That might be too daunting a task even for him. Girardi said, rather tellingly, "This is the group that we have right now," implying that the group might change rather soon. In games like this one, it's easy to see the back injury that has sidelined Alfredo Aceves for the past seven weeks as the most significant blow this team has suffered all season. With a healthy Aceves, we see a lot less of Robertson and Park, and that could only be good.

The lineup, however, isn't going anywhere, and unless the Yankees start hitting , days like this will be more and more commonplace. Games that should be won in relatively routine fashion will instead be lost in the most gut-wrenching ways.

"This offense is going to hit," Girardi said again after the game -- he has been saying it for the better part of a month -- and eventually, he will be right.

But he wasn't Friday, not about his lineup or about his bullpen or even, some might argue, with his decision to allow Cervelli to hit, rather than sacrifice, on the at-bat that turned into the disastrous DP.

But why dwell on the negatives? On a day when a lot of things around Yankee Stadium didn't change a bit, one very important thing did.

The No. 2 man in the Yankees' rotation pitched like an ace again. In the long run, that might turn out to be a lot more important than a 6-1 loss to the Blue Jays.

GAME NOTES: In case you're wondering, Chan Ho Park is not worried about how he pitched Friday. "I don't think I'm struggling," he said. "I feel confidence. I just missed one pitch." He was referring to a 3-2 pitch to Vernon Wells that was called ball four and forced in the Jays' third run. He did not mention the pitch that the next hitter, DeWayne Wise, smoked over Curtis Granderson's head for the bases-clearing triple that blew the game open. ... Likewise, Chamberlain isn't too concerned, dusting off the "handful of bad appearances" line he has used a few times already this season. At this rate, he soon will have to change to "two handfuls." ... Before the game, RHP Dustin Moseley was recalled from Triple-A Scranton and LHP Boone Logan was sent down. ... Saturday's pitching matchup: Andy Pettitte (9-2, 2.72) versus LHP Ricky Romero (6-4, 2.83).

Wallace Matthews is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. 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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