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Saturday, March 12, 2011
A.J. is on when he shrugs off mistakes

By Andrew Marchand
ESPNNewYork.com

VIERA, Fla. -- It is only a month into spring training, but A.J. Burnett was in regular-season form.

His usual pendulum between good A.J. and bad A.J swung back and forth. He struck out the side in the first, gave up a two-run homer in the second. Then he retired his final nine batters.

For the spring, it is nine innings in the books for Burnett. He has allowed just two runs on four hits, struck out six and has walked none.

So there has been much more good than bad, no doubt, but projecting results in the spring for the summer is an inexact science. History is a superior method.

A.J. Burnett
Combustible? Not on Saturday. Burnett gave up a homer, cooled off and retired nine straight batters.

Burnett should be better than the 10-15 record and 5.26 ERA he posted in 2010. But can he be a legit No. 2 again? Can be more than a .500 pitcher? His New York Yankees manager says yes.

"I definitely think he can because of the stuff he has," Joe Girardi said. "Putting limitations on people doesn't make sense."

From Girardi's perspective, it doesn't make sense to say anything different. But from every other point of view it is hard to imagine that at 34, Burnett is going to be a changed man.

Burnett is around a .500 pitcher (110-100) for his career. Always has been and likely always will be.

The talk about Burnett this spring has been about various body parts. First, it was about his mechanics and how he is swinging his leg, which is twisting less on his delivery. Now, it is about Burnett's eyes. That is where Girardi notices Burnett's effort.

"I can see it in his eyes," Girardi said.

But with Burnett, it will never be about his leg or his eyes or even his right arm -- it is, and always will be, about his brain. Despite his Cy Young talent, his concentration can disappear from one inning or even one pitch to the next. Last season, his inability to shake off a homer often led to such a lapse. Then it was, "Lookout clubhouse door, A.J. is coming!"

Even Burnett conceded a spring training game doesn't mean too much, but there was a small, encouraging sign Saturday.

In the first inning against Washington, Burnett struck out the side. Focusing on using his fastball and unveiling his top-shelf curve for the first time this spring, he got Roger Berdina on a check swing and Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman swinging.

The first inning made him look as if he could be nasty all day. He had the precise location on his fastball and the curveball was working.

It was the type of stuff that has made scouts rave ever since he was traded by the Mets to the Marlins in 1998 and trained right here at the appropriately named (for Burnett) Space Coast Stadium. But Burnett can look otherworldly one moment and then like his mind is on the moon the next.

In the second, Adam LaRoche led off with a chop single to center that found the spot in the middle of the diamond to escape the gloves of shortstop Eduardo Nuñez and second baseman Robinson Cano. It was a perfect time for Burnett to demonstrate some early progress.

Instead Michael Morse lit into a fastball and drove it over the right field fence.>p?

"I thought it was a decent pitch," Burnett said. "It was a big man who has power."

This is where Burnett shined Saturday: "I gave up the bomb and I didn't care," he said. "I got back on the mound and I got the next three guys out. I'm not going to be perfect every time out."

He got the next six, too. It is only spring training, so to say this will translate from April through October would be foolish. Burnett knows.

"By no means am I happy or content right now," Burnett said. "I have a long way to go. Everything is different under the lights."

Even Girardi knows what is ahead for Burnett. If Burnett struggles early, Girardi understands it could spiral. The questions from the media and the shouts from the fans will be loud.

"Is he going back?" Girardi said people will ask in reference to Burnett's 2010 ERA of 5.26, the worst ever for a Yankee with at least 30 starts. "Is he going to struggle all year?"

Girardi said it is "important" for Burnett to start strong. If not, Girardi said he thinks Burnett will be able to handle it. Girardi has to think that.

Burnett said history can change. He can be more than a .500 pitcher, as long as he is healthy.

"When you are on a team like this, it is hard not to have a chance to win every day," Burnett said.

Burnett proved last year that it is not impossible. But he is off to a good start in the spring. On Saturday, bad A.J. showed up and Burnett made him vanish quickly. When lights are on, Burnett has to make sure that continues. If not, Girardi's faith will not be rewarded.

GAME NOTES: Mariano Rivera makes his spring training debut Sunday in Tampa. ... Freddy Garcia, the leader for the fifth starter spot, starts. Garcia has yet to give up a run in five innings this spring. ... The game is on YES. ... Nuñez made a throwing error to begin the ninth that put Nyjer Morgan on second. Morgan eventually scored the winning run. Nuñez is fighting with Ramiro Peña to be a backup infielder. Nuñez is hitting .333 compared to Peña's .154.