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10/19/10 12:06 AM ET
Burnett takes center stage in Game 4
By Mike Bauman / MLB.com
NEW YORK -- With the exception of one inning in Game 1, Texas Rangers pitching has dominated New York Yankees hitting in the 2010 American League Championship Series. But this isn't even the topic that has led the way in public concerns regarding the Yankees. That concern revolves around what has become a kind of Yankee catchphrase for this series: "We are on rotation." These are the words used time and again by Yankees manager Joe Girardi to explain the starting-pitching situation for his team in the ALCS. This phrase does not have the inspirational heft of "Remember the Alamo" or the transcendent rhetorical splendor of "All men are created equal." But it is not Girardi's fault. Time after time in recent days, Girardi has been asked the same question. The verbiage changes, but the thrust of the question does not. It amounts to this: "Are you still planning to start A.J. Burnett in Game 4 and if so, why in the world are you doing this?" Game 4 between the Yankees and the Rangers is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday at Yankee Stadium. Yes, Burnett is still expected to start for the Yankees. He will be opposed by Tommy Hunter of the Rangers. But in this series, the Yankees have had problems that have obviously had nothing to do with Burnett. The Burnett start has taken on even more importance than normal because, with Monday night's 8-0 Game 3 loss, the Yankees trail, 2-1, in the ALCS. And it has seemed somehow worse than that, because the Yankees' offense has struggled, apart from its five-run eruption in the eighth inning of Game 1. Other than that one inning, the Texas pitchers have dominated, holding the Yankees to a .194 batting average over three games. Apart from the five-run inning, the Yankees have scored a total of three runs. Anyone can be stopped by Cliff Lee, but he didn't pitch all three of these games."We haven't swung the bats great," Girardi said. "But we have seen some pretty good pitching, and we are not the only lineup that they have shut down. But I still believe that we are going to hit and that we have a good offense, and tomorrow's a new day." With the hitting shortage making a difficult situation even more difficult, Girardi received the obligatory Burnett question twice on Monday, pregame and postgame. The gist of Girardi's response to the Burnett queries changes only marginally. Monday Girardi said: "We all know what A.J. can dial up, and we believe in him." And then, as the manager said again Monday: "We are on rotation, is probably the easiest way for me to put it." That is the crux of it, for good or ill. Burnett has stuff that can be overpowering. This is why the Yankees are paying him $82.5 million over five years. What they did not want was the 5.26 ERA he posted this season, even less his 7.80 ERA in August or the 6.14 mark he put up in September. Now, they fondly recall Game 2 of the 2009 World Series, when Burnett pitched seven innings that could fairly be described as brilliant, thus evening the Fall Classic. Because he was left out of the three-man AL Division Series rotation, Burnett has not pitched in 17 days. This just doubles the worries for the Burnett doubters, whose numbers have been expanding. But Burnett was not singing the blues at his interview session on Monday. Rust? Not a problem. "I haven't pitched in a long time, so I haven't struggled in a long time," Burnett said with a smile. Later, when he was asked about how difficult it would be to pitch now, because pitching in the postseason was difficult under normal circumstances, Burnett said: "It's easier for me, because I've had a rough one. ... I feel great, man. I feel like I'm right where I need to be." While the media's interrogation of Burnett Monday was serious to the point of being grim, the free-spirited Hunter set a different tone for his own press session. Hunter described his approach to baseball as: "You've been doing it since you were little. Why not be a kid when you're big?" He described his tactical approach to pitching against the Yankees in this way: "You've just got to play baseball; throw a fastball down and away and see how they react to it. That's what Cliff [Lee] taught me." That line drew a well-deserved laugh. Hunter had a regular season to smile about, with a 13-4 record and a 3.73 ERA. But in his only postseason start, he took the loss in Game 4 of the ALDS against Tampa Bay. Looking at the possibilities for Game 4, it is easy to calculate that the Yankees' offense, baseball's best in 2010 by the numbers, is due to break out and provide more than one inning's worth of offense. But it is not so easy to project that Burnett is going to pitch the way he did in Game 2 of the 2009 World Series. But the Yankees are going to require improvement on both fronts in Game 4. The alternative looks a lot like a 3-1 deficit.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.