Burnett the difference-maker for Yanks

NEW YORK -- A.J. Burnett isn't just another starter in the New York Yankees' rotation.

Maybe that was the case in years gone by, but not this season. Burnett is the key, the most important player in the Yankees' clubhouse if they want to win another championship.

On the surface, it sounds a bit dramatic, especially for a team with a $200 million payroll that won it all two seasons ago. Plus, so much has to go right and you have to get so many contributions from so many players during the course of a long baseball season in order to win at the end.

Still, in a clubhouse filled with so many stars and built on a foundation of players who have won enough championship rings to outfit an entire hand, there's no denying that Burnett will be the difference in the Yankees contending for division first and the World Series title later.

It would be one thing if the Yankees got Cliff Lee in free agency or Andy Pettitte didn't retire. But there's no Lee or Pettitte to lean on this season.

The Yankees were able to make it to the American League Championship Series without Burnett last season. He didn't pitch in the ALDS. That won't happen this season. The Yankees can't afford for Burnett to have another season like his disastrous 2010 campaign, in which he went 10-15 with a chubby 5.26 ERA.

Of course, the focus won't be on Burnett on Thursday when the Yankees open the season against the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium.

But on Saturday, after an off-day, in Game 2, all eyes will be on Burnett to see if he has improved from a year ago or is still the Yankees starter who makes most fans cringe when he takes the mound. And Burnett's first test is a good one because the Tigers' lineup has some big bats.

"I expect a lot out of myself," Burnett said on Wednesday about the fans' expectations. "So I'm on the same page as they are.

"I'm in a good place right now mentally and physically. I have no worries about what I'm about to start and what we're about to do. My expectations are just as great as theirs."

For Burnett, 34, it has never been about stuff, talent. For sure, the right-hander has all of that.

But the mental part of the game was another question.

Enter confidence. Simply put, he lost it.

New Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild helped to rebuild that. "Larry was straight confidence,'' Burnett said. "He wanted me to basically believe in myself, believe in all the drills we did so come game time, there's no thinking going on, no doubt, no questioning. It's just pure confidence in my stuff on the mound."

Rothschild saw progress. He got Burnett to straighten out his delivery to home plate. "And we wanted to get him in a mindset where he knows when he lets the ball go, he's got a real good chance to hit the spot he's throwing to," Rothschild said.

Burnett's teammates have seen the change, too. "A.J. is going to be fine," captain Derek Jeter said. "He's got great stuff. Growing pains happens to everybody."

Burnett -- who has earned $16.5 million in each of his first two seasons in Da Bronx -- was extremely happy about spring training and working with Rothschild. He felt he accomplished just about everything he wanted to. "I got stronger as spring went on and I was able to find my second and third pitches easier than before,'' he said. "There's a lot less thinking going on the mound out there. Obviously, the more success you have, the less thinking you're going to do out there. It was a fun spring and the work that we did, you can tell it paid off.''

So much so that ace CC Sabathia praised Burnett's changeup. It's a pitch he'll have to have confidence in throwing this season. "I have to use it,'' said Burnett, who worked on it the other day in the cage after a rainout. "I used it against righties and lefties. It's going to be a big pitch for me.''

Earlier this spring, Burnett kind of embraced the idea of the importance of his pitching this season. On Wednesday, he kind of downplayed it. But it wasn't in a bad way. You got the sense that he simply understands what he has to do and it isn't anything he hasn't been able to do in the past.

"In the spring, I felt like I threw the ball well,'' he said. "I stayed within myself physically and mentally to get myself ready for the season.

"My expectations are just to help this ball team a lot more than in the past.''

The Yankees need Burnett now more than ever. "He's definitely going to be a big part of our success," Sabathia said.