Friday, March 18, 2011 Updated: March 19, 11:41 AM ET
To Yankees, A.J.'s glass looks half full
By Wallace Matthews ESPNNewYork.com
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The New York Yankees need A.J. Burnett to be good this season. They need it so badly that even when he is not completely good, like he was on Friday against the Blue Jays, they tell themselves, oh yes he was.
More importantly, they tell that to Burnett, because with him there is always a lot more work to be done above his shoulders than below them.
A.J. Burnett didn't melt down on the mound Friday. Translation? He had one heck of an outing.
That is why, after he finished a somewhat messy four innings, in which he allowed five hits, four runs (two earned), threw two wild pitches, hit a batter and had his catcher, Russell Martin, flopping around behind the plate like a goldfish on a kitchen floor, Joe Girardi, Martin and Burnett were all in agreement.
That was one heck of an outing.
After all, his big test came in the third inning, by which point he had already allowed three runs, one on a home run by one of his several former personal catchers (Jose Molina), had already thrown one of his wild pitches; had hit Eric Thames and had allowed two of the Blue Jays' three stolen bases.
He had been nailed, solidly, in what ballplayers like to call the "fleshy area of the upper thigh," better known as the buttocks, by a Juan Rivera line drive that became an RBI single.
At this point last year, Burnett would have been a case, fit to be Tasered. Or at least, unfit to pitch effectively anymore.
And when, on successive pitches to Jose Bautista leading off the third, one a check swing and the other a borderline strike, he failed to get a call from home plate umpire David Rackley, it appeared he was on the verge of a patented A.J. meltdown, especially when he spread his arms in disbelief and stared at the first base ump for help.
But this is the new A.J., or at least the springtime A.J., the one who doesn't allow himself to become rattled, who doesn't find ways to lose or create reasons for his own failure. Not yet, anyway.
This A.J. shrugged it off, went back to work and got the dangerous Bautista to pop out to the infield. Yes, the next batter, Adam Lind, doubled and eventually scored the Jays' fourth run of the game, but Burnett came back to pitch a clean fourth and make a somewhat dignified exit from a game the Yankees went on to lose, 6-5.
And after it was over, he actually seemed somewhat pleased with what he had done.
"It was an interesting game, that's for sure," said Burnett, who now has a 2.77 ERA in 13 spring training innings, and remarkably, has yet to walk a batter. "I found my hook today, so that's a positive I can take from it. I got to work through some stuff. You want to be crisp and clean every time out, don't get me wrong, but I had my strikeout pitch working today when I needed it, and that was big."
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True, Burnett had a wicked curveball, one that nobody on the Blue Jays could put a bat on. Nor could Martin get a glove on it. Two of Burnett's five strikeouts were on curveballs that bounded away from the catcher. On one, Martin threw the runner out at first. On the other, his throw sailed into right field, allowing a runner to score from second.
And one Burnett fastball had so much life on it that Martin, in trying to pull it over the plate to get a borderline strike call, allowed it to deflect off his glove for a passed ball.
In past seasons, Burnett might have been calling for a relief catcher. This spring, he has had nothing but praise for Martin, and vice versa.
"He did a great job," Burnett said. "I threw some good hooks in the dirt and he stopped 'em. So he did great. He's a brick wall back there."
Martin, whose spring debut behind the plate had been delayed while his surgically repaired knee healed, answered any remaining questions about its stability with his roughhouse performance.
"They were swinging at breaking balls in the dirt, so I kept calling them," Martin said. "I was getting a workout for sure."
Martin tried to take the blame for two of the stolen bases, and insisted on assuming responsibility for the passed ball ("I got a little too cute back there and just missed it"), but mostly his theme for the day, and that of the manager, was to support A.J.
"He was good out there," Martin said. "Definitely that was the best I've seen of his curveball. When it's that sharp, it's a tough pitch to block so I've got to stay alert back there."
And when asked about Burnett's temperament on the mound, Martin, who bore no witness to the histrionics of last year, saw nothing that alarmed him today. "It was pretty good," Martin said. "He didn't really get overly excited, or get too angry. It seemed like he was able to shake off some situations. When he didn't get the calls that he wanted, he was able to clear his mind and keep going and that's a big part of the game right there."
For Burnett, some would say the biggest. Girardi, a man so cautious with his words he is reluctant to acknowledge that today is Friday, has yet to designate Burnett either his No. 2 or 3 starter.
But he knows he needs him to pitch, and behave better than he did last year, when he went 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA and was left out of the rotation for the first round of playoffs, if the Yankees are going to contend this season.
"I actually thought he threw better than the numbers indicate," Girardi said. "I thought his curveball was really good today. I thought he made a few mistakes with his sinker today, a pitch that he's been working on. But he was all right."
And even though it is only March, that is a huge improvement over A.J. 2010, when it seemed as though everything was all wrong.
"I'm just trying to pay more attention to myself, not really trying to be perfect and this and that, but paying attention to my delivery more," Burnett said. "That's big for me, confidence-wise and keeping myself in the game. That was a crazy game today, but sometimes you gotta smile out there, and that's what I did."
NOTES:Brett Gardner left the game after 3 1/2 innings, suffering from a bruise on his right shin incurred when he fouled a ball off it on his first at-bat Thursday night. Gardner opened the game with a double, but appeared not to be running as swiftly as usual. His problems became apparent in the third inning when he was thrown out at the plate trying to score from second on a single, a play that is generally not even close. "He just didn't get the push off and the jump that you would expect," Girardi said. "So we got him out of there." Gardner admitted to "a little tightness," but insisted he was fine. ... Sergio Mitre, in his first appearance since missing about a week with an oblique strain, worked three innings and allowed the Jays' final two runs on a home run by Mike McCoy in the sixth. Andrew Brackman, optioned to Triple-A earlier in the week, worked a 1-2-3 eighth. ... The Yankees reserves rallied to make a game of it with four runs in the eighth, with the help of a couple of walks and an error. Jorge Vazquez got another hit in his only at-bat to raise his spring average to .483. ... Yankees play host to the Blue Jays on Saturday afternoon. Freddy Garcia, still alive in the Drive for No. 5 along with Mitre and Bartolo Colon, tries to rebound from his worst outing of the spring, facing LHP Brett Cecil. First pitch is 1:05 p.m. ET. YES will telecast, WCBS-AM (880) will broadcast.