Somehow, the Yankees Season Rests on the Shoulders of A.J. Burnett
An influential high school freshmen baseball coach once told me, “Baseball is a game of redemption.” It was his favorite phrase and one that he used almost four or five times each game. He knew it wasn’t the most original phrase anyone has ever thought up, but it was certainly the truth.
A center fielder can go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts and still rob a game-winning home run in the 9th to preserve a win for his team. A first basemen can go hitless through the first six games of a playoff series and hit a game-winning homer in the seventh and he becomes everyone’s hero. Heck, even A.J. Burnett can go 11-11 with a 5.15 ERA in the regular season and be given an opportunity to salvage his team’s season with one performance.
We knew when the Yankees signed him that Burnett would be a huge mistake for Brian Cashman. Over the past two seasons, the $82.5 million “front-line” starter has been atrocious. He has been in danger of permanently losing his spot in the rotation several times, but it’s hard to justify benching someone who makes $16 million a year. One thing appeared certain as the right-hander struggled through his 2011 campaign: there would be no spot for Burnett in the postseason rotation.
Not only is there a spot for A.J. in the ALDS, he is taking the mound in what could turn out to be an elimination game for New York. Despite not having his best stuff, Justin Verlander threw enough 100-mph fastballs on Monday night to give the Tigers a 2-1 series lead over the Yankees. After all the headaches he has given Yankee fans throughout the 2011 season, Burnett is being asked to lead New York in its most important game of the season.
Lucky for Burnett, the playoffs are a chance to start fresh. Unlike John Lackey who has yet to show Red Sox fans he can handle pitching in Boston, Burnett has flashed signs of brilliance since the Yankees signed him in 2009. On rare occasions, his stuff has been unhittable. When Burnett gets into rhythm he features a fastball that can buckle left-handed hitters and a curve ball that’s impossible for righties to lay off of. It’s getting into a rhythm that has become a problem.
Burnett is the epitome of a hurler who quickly becomes his own worst enemy, which is why Joe Girardi has openly stated he will be “on a short leash” Tuesday night. If A.J. puts men on base and allows the Tigers to gain momentum early, his night will be over. If he breezes through the first couple innings without any trouble, he could be on his way to earning forgiveness from Yankees fans for his failures in 2010 and 2011. The stuff is there — the question is whether or not Burnett can find it.
Posts like this one likely will do nothing to boost the confidence of New York fans heading into Game 4. Truth be told: they have no reason to believe in A.J. Burnett. How quickly that could change with a ballsy performance Tuesday night.