Buzz aside, Burnett eager to prove ability
Embattled righty can build on Yankees' trust in Game 4 start
NEW YORK -- There will come a time when A.J. Burnett will reflect on his first two seasons in New York, a disappointing stretch that the right-hander fully admits hasn't been "worth anything" -- with the exception of last year's postseason.
Burnett will think about the "Good A.J." and the more frequent "Bad A.J.," -- the pitcher whose dismal performance left him out of this year's American League Division Series rotation, in contrast to the one who held the Phillies to one run over seven innings with nine strikeouts in a critical Game 2 win during last year's Fall Classic.
But the time for contemplation is not now, as Burnett readies himself for Tuesday's outing in Game 4 of the AL Championship Series, his first start since Oct. 2 and perhaps his only chance at redemption this season.
"I mean, I'm not taking anything away [from this season] -- I'm not trying to ignore the year and say it wasn't a big deal," Burnett said of his career-high 15 losses and 5.26 ERA. "It was a big deal.
"[But] no matter if I had the second half to the season I had or the last year I had, you put it behind you. Somewhere or another, you put it behind you."
Burnett said he has not read the headlines splashed all around New York, but it's no secret to him that fans and media outlets have questioned whether he is up to the task of facing a potent Texas Rangers lineup.
ONE BY ONE
Manager Joe Girardi has frequently squelched any talk of the Yankees skipping Burnett and having ace CC Sabathia go on short rest, a scenario that would also force Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte to be pushed up. Girardi, who has yet to publicly disclose who will catch Burnett -- Jorge Posada or Francisco Cervelli -- is adamant that the team is "staying on rotation" and sticking with Burnett.
"As players, we always believe in each other because we have all been through ups and downs," Girardi said. "You might go through an 0-for-20, and then the next time a week later, you go 13-for-20, and it happens because players belong here and they are talented. We all know what A.J. can dial up, and we believe in him."
The Yankees believed in Burnett enough to sign the right-hander to a five-year, $82.5 million contract in December 2008. In his first year in the Bronx, Burnett went a respectable 13-9 with a 4.04 ERA, including 3-1 with a 3.83 ERA in his final seven regular-season starts.
This year, Burnett went 1-3 with a 5.60 ERA over that same stretch, leaving evidence of his struggles fresh in the minds of the Yankees' decision-makers. But if there is a silver lining to his long layoff -- which included several flat ground sessions and a simulated game -- it is that Burnett now has a fresh start against a lineup against whom he has historically fared well.
SWING AND A MISS
"I haven't pitched in a long time, so I haven't struggled in a long time," Burnett said. "I feel like I'm where I need to be. It's been a long time since I've been on the mound, but I'm sharp and I expect things to go as 'normal A.J.'"
A Burnett who follows this year's script against the Rangers would be all the Yankees need. He went 1-0 with a 2.50 ERA in three starts against the Rangers and has held some of Texas' biggest power threats in check, including Josh Hamilton (2-for-16), Vladimir Guerrero (12-for-50, 12 strikeouts) and Nelson Cruz (1-for-14, eight strikeouts).
Rangers manager Ron Washington made it clear on Monday afternoon that Burnett is always considered a threat, regardless of the numbers following his name.
"A guy with his type of stuff, you still don't know what you are going to get, even when he's struggling," Washington said. "If you put him out there, his stuff could get nasty. One guy who you don't think is going to do anything might be the guy who steps up and has everything fall into place. You are darn right I'm concerned about him."
Washington's concern -- and Burnett's effectiveness -- hinges on avoiding the big inning and throwing his curveball for strikes, an indicator of how his night will unfold. There is no extra motivation for Burnett in silencing his critics or proving that the Yankees should have given him an ALDS start.
Burnett -- who harbors no ill will -- points out he did not deserve the ball in place of Sabathia, Hughes or Pettitte. Come Tuesday night, he will get a chance to prove he belongs alongside them and that his struggles have made him better.
"If you can understand it and really look at it and be honest with yourself, [you can learn from it]," Burnett said of his rocky season. "I don't ponder too much about what happened, but I've got a pretty good idea why. The thing is, it's the playoffs. It's October. So it brings the best and the worst out."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.