Commentary

Burnett's 'funk' continues to hurt Yanks

After yet another rough start, the pitcher is on his last legs in the Bombers' rotation

Updated: August 27, 2011, 10:57 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

BALTIMORE -- On Friday afternoon, Gov. Martin O'Malley declared a state of emergency for Maryland in anticipation of the arrival of Hurricane Irene.

Perhaps the governor should have done the same in anticipation of the arrival of A.J. Burnett at Camden Yards.

Six days after what we all believed to be his worst performance of the year, both on the mound and on his way off the mound, Burnett dug himself a new low Friday night against the Baltimore Orioles, pitching a second inning so bad Joe Girardi should have sent FEMA out to the mound to get him.

Burnett followed up his Minnesota meltdown with a Baltimore blowup, allowing nine runs in five innings on nine hits, eight of them extra-base laser beams, and he stayed in the game that long only because Girardi wasn't about to burn his bullpen in a losing effort.

Now, in the town of Edgar Allan Poe, only a raven lunatic would still try to make a case for keeping Burnett in the starting rotation.

And for once, not even Girardi was willing to play that role.

Asked whether he was considering yanking Burnett from the rotation, Girardi blurted out, "Can't. I don't think we can do it. Look at our schedule.''

Indeed, following Saturday's enforced off day -- the scheduled day/night doubleheader, necessitated by an early season rainout, was canceled during Friday night's game and rescheduled for Sunday, which also looks iffy -- the New York Yankees face a tough stretch of games that includes just two off days in September, one of which will be spent traveling from Seattle to Toronto.

The implication was clear: If Girardi could whack Burnett, he'd do it today. But he can't.

"With all these doubleheaders, we need a six-man rotation,'' he said.

But there's no longer any doubt that Burnett -- signed to a five-year, $82.5 million deal coming off an 18-win 2008 season in which he dominated the Red Sox and, yes, the Yankees -- is definitely No. 6 in a job that normally requires only five men.

No one has any real answers, although they all pay lip service to one cliche or another.

Catcher Russell Martin tried to insist that Burnett still has "great stuff'' but lacked command.

Burnett claimed to have had an in-game epiphany, realizing he needed to pitch more aggressively on the inside part of the plate with his fastball. Alas, he made this realization only after the Orioles had lit him up for six runs in the second inning, on six extra-base hits -- two long home runs sandwiched around four consecutive doubles.

And even after his "aha" moment, Burnett allowed three more runs, two of them in the fifth on a double and a triple.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesHow much longer can Joe Girardi keep A.J. Burnett in the rotation?

"The guys know I'm out there battling,'' Burnett said, reciting the kind of new-age positivity that works great on morning television but not so well on the ballfield. "I'm out there giving what I got, and I guess at the end of the night, that's not really failure. I mean, yeah, I didn't get the results, I didn't execute, but I left it all out there, so now we got to find a way to do both.''

Curiously, Girardi was a lot more upset about losing an off day in September due to the Orioles' refusal to play a pre-emptive strike doubleheader Friday than he was about the latest Burnett fiasco. Peter Angelos became this week's Jack Curry, the de facto target of the manager's wrath when it really should have been his pitcher.

Instead, Girardi preferred to point back at Burnett's fine 2009 season as evidence the 34-year-old right-hander will bounce back, never acknowledging that season is now nearly two years in the rear-view mirror and that Burnett has been a bad Yankees pitcher for a lot longer than he was a good one.

The manager keeps referring to Burnett's struggles as "a funk,'' and if so, the man is walking around in a perpetual cloud of funk that only the most cockeyed optimist could ever believe will lift.

The other thing the manager is relying on is the ephemeral effect of the calendar. As a Yankee, Burnett is now 1-9 in August and, despite getting his first August win 11 days ago, has an ERA of 11.91 this month. The manager said that perhaps by Burnett's turn, when the calendar reads "September,'' he will magically morph from Ed Whitson into Tom Seaver.

"His August has been stinkers,'' Girardi said. "Hopefully his September is good.''

But when pressed about whether it is fair to the rest of the team to keep running Burnett out there, especially with the Yankees in a battle for the division with the Boston Red Sox, Girardi admitted, "You have to think about all those things.''

Most laughably of all, Girardi was asked whether he worried about the prospect of starting Burnett against the Red Sox on Wednesday, his next scheduled start, as if big bad Boston could possibly hit Burnett any harder than meek little Baltimore did.

"If you make the kind of mistakes he did tonight,'' Girardi said, "anyone will hurt you.''

But no one could hurt Burnett any worse than Burnett is hurting the Yankees right now. On Friday night, following their 22-run explosion Thursday, the Yankees got home runs from Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez (his first since coming off the disabled list and first since June 11), and a two-run bomb by Nick Swisher that landed out on Eutaw Street between the ballpark and the warehouse beyond the right-field bleachers.

But by then, the game was long, long gone. Burnett, however, is still around, a walking emergency that no federal agency could hope to clean up.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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