Commentary

Burnett, Yankees not so bad after all

For a night at least, rumors of their demise appear to have been somewhat exaggerated

Updated: September 2, 2011, 12:01 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

BOSTON -- It is tough to decide which is more unlikely: that A.J. Burnett could be "fixed" in four days or that the Yankees could wipe out 11 exercises in futility on one exceptional night.

And yet, let us imagine that both of those events occurred Thursday night at Fenway Park. (I realize this will take some suspension of disbelief, but humor me for a few minutes.)

This much we know as fact: Burnett, after getting crushed in his previous two starts against the lowly Minnesota Twins and the even lowlier Baltimore Orioles, pitched 5 1/3 effective innings against the mighty Boston Red Sox.

And the Yankees, who to this point had been able to beat the Red Sox only two times in 12 games over the previous four months, suddenly found the ability to beat them twice in three days.

Abruptly, the American League East race doesn't seem like such a mismatch, nor does the Yankees' starting rotation appear to be such a mess.

The Yankees, having taken two of three from the Red Sox, leave Boston a game closer than when they arrived and sit a slim half-game behind the division leaders.

And Burnett, who was sitting on the cusp of losing his spot in the rotation after being lit up for 16 earned runs in his previous two starts, no longer has to be measured for a seat in the bullpen.

How long either of those two situations will last remains to be seen, but for one night at least, the rumors of both the Yankees' and Burnett's demise appear to have been somewhat exaggerated.

"I felt that we were a better club than what we had played against them, but yeah, you want to win a series," manager Joe Girardi said. "We had a chance the last time we were here, and I think we had a chance the first time we were here. They had beaten us six straight at home. So I think it was important, I do."

A.J. Burnett
Mark L. Baer/US PresswireA.J. Burnett deserves praise for righting the ship Thursday against the Red Sox.

The Yankees won the game 4-2, thanks to Russell Martin, who knocked in the winning run with a laser of a double off Daniel Bard. And to Andruw Jones, whose incredible 14-pitch at-bat that culiminated in a walk from Alfredo Aceves set it up. And to Curtis Granderson, whose diving catch of Jed Lowrie's sinking liner saved two runs in the sixth.

But most of all, it was thanks to Burnett, who earned a no decision that was almost as good as a win. After his nosedives against the Twins and Orioles, it would seem a matchup of the Yankees head case against the Boston headbangers was a recipe for disaster, but aside from one 3-1 cutter that Dustin Pedroia deposited in the center-field seats in the fourth inning, Burnett was in command.

We all spend plenty of time bashing Burnett, for several reasons: It is easy, it is fun and, mostly, it is justified.

But on this night, the only thing justified was praise. Not only for the way he pitched -- he held the Red Sox to five hits and two runs -- but for his willingness to make a change that he and pitching coach Larry Rothschild said made all the difference in his performance.

There's no point in boring you with the technicalities of the mechanical adjustments that were installed this week, but there is plenty of reason to commend a pitcher who, after 13 years of being a thrower, took steps Thursday night to make the conversion into a pitcher.

In short, four days ago, Rothschild set out to convince Burnett that he had to change the set of his hands before each delivery and reduce the rotation in his windup.

The details of it are really not important, but the fact that Burnett listened, thought about it -- he said -- for a day and a half, tried it in the bullpen and then implemented it in arguably his most important start of the year is vital.

Rothschild called their conversation of Aug. 27 -- the day Hurricane Irene paralyzed Baltimore and washed away a doubleheader the day after Burnett was roughed up for nine runs in five innings -- "a coachable moment," which is a euphemism for a player begging for help.

Several Yankees have experienced those in the recent past. There was Granderson asking Kevin Long to help him out of the morass he was in a year ago, and Derek Jeter doing the same with first Long and later Gary Denbo. And the results in both those cases have been striking.

Whether Burnett's "coachable moment" with Rothschild has the same effect, or even lasts until his next start, is still to be determined. But the fact that Burnett has acknowledged needing such help is an indication, his public proclamations of bravado aside, he was as worried about his future as anyone over the past six weeks.

"It was a situation where I thought after his last game, 'It's time,'" Rothschild said. "I presented it to him and I was happy to find out he was on board with it."

"Larry brought it to me four days ago," Burnett said. "I thought about it for a day and a half, and decided to go with it. Now, I think it's something I can stay with and build off of."

Burnett's struggles, of course, have been a source of frustration and mystification for the fans, his teammates and himself.

Now, having watched him pitch effectively with his new approach, Rothschild says the 34-year-old Burnett might not be a pitcher in decline, but in transition.

"I give him a lot of credit for coming into Boston and being willing to do what he did," Rothschild said. "He may come out of the other side of this and be really good."

Or he might be just the same old A.J., the one who teases but ultimately lets you down. In that case, the Yankees are likely to go down with him.

But after a win like this one -- the first of the season that gives you some hope that maybe, just maybe, the Yankees will be able to find a way to beat the Red Sox four times out of seven in October -- Burnett and his teammates prefer to think that this will not be another one-night stand, but a new beginning.

"I've pitched bigger games than this one before," Burnett said afterward, the bravado still intact. "I think this is a bigger game for us than it is for me."

His catcher, however, might beg to differ. "If he goes into every game with this mindset, he'll be great," Martin said. "I expect him to be this good every time he goes out now. And I'm sure he expects that, too."

Unlikely perhaps, but for one night at least, strangely believable.

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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