- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- It was strange but true to find out Sunday that the New York Yankees see their postseason pitching rotation as their last great unanswered question going into their day-night doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox. So much so there was barely a word uttered among the Yankees about the chance they had to help put a sleeperhold on the Red Sox's season before their collapsing blood rivals can even get to the playoffs.
So if A.J. Burnett, their opening-game starter, does eke his way into the Yankees' mix on the strength of Sunday's performance -- especially now that Bartolo Colon is winless in his past nine and Phil Hughes' aching back has made him a question mark -- the best thing Burnett will have going for him is not the 95 mph fastball he sometimes showcases.
It'll be Burnett's colossal power of denial, which has been far more reliable this season than his curveball, and light years more consistent than his control or shaky ability to work out of jams.
Relying on a No. 3 or 4 postseason starter whose M.O. is "if you can't be great, at least be self-delusional" isn't the Yankees' first choice. But they do have a harder decision to make now that the Good A.J. was back at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, stifling the Red Sox in the first game of a day-night doubleheader to earn a standing ovation when he walked off the mound with the Yanks on their way to a 6-2 win.
Burnett, who has had his share of boos from the home fans this season, smiled later when asked if the roar gave him goose bumps and admitted, "Yeah, there were a lot of them. A lot of them. That makes up for everything, when I walked off the mound to that ovation."
Burnett allowed only five hits and struck out six in his 7⅔ innings of work. He stayed calm even when Jacoby Ellsbury touched him for one, then two home runs in back-to-back at-bats. He was good even when the Red Sox weren't sabotaging themselves by helping the Yankees score two runs in the first inning when Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia collaborated on a passed ball, an error and a wild pitch.
The Red Sox gave the Yanks another gift run in the fifth when Boston left fielder Carl Crawford made only a matador's wave at a one-hop single that Derek Jeter hit right at him, allowing the ball to roll all the way to the wall. Jeter went to second on the error, and scored from there on a single by Alex Rodriguez when Saltalamacchia dropped the throw to home on what would've been a close play at the plate.
When outsiders look at whether Burnett should be on the playoff roster, they tend to combine his past two seasons, not just his struggles this year, and ask why the Yanks are even willing to consider trusting him with a postseason start, let alone perhaps the No. 3 slot in the rotation ahead of Freddy Garcia.
Burnett's fastball will win a beauty contest against Garcia's 87 mph best and the rest of Garcia's junkball repertoire every time. But there's no diminishing the fact Garcia has won more often and allowed fewer runs than Burnett has this season, which is sorta the whole point, isn't it? Would you rather have a pitcher or a thrower?
It's a moot point because the Yankees may need both Garcia and Burnett in the coming playoffs. And the bright side for the Yankees? As bad as Burnett has often been this season, when Burnett looks at himself he consistently swears he feels like a better pitcher than his 5.16 ERA and 11-11 record suggest. Reality often turns up missing in his public self-assessments.
Just last Monday against a Minnesota Twins team ravaged by injuries, Burnett -- not for the first time -- actually had the stones to gripe about how Yankees manager Joe Girardi rushed up the dugout steps to yank him. (This time it was because he failed to get an out in the fifth and seemed about to completely blow the 5-0 lead the Yanks had staked him to.)
"I didn't get through the fifth because I wasn't allowed to get through the fifth," Burnett complained. "It wasn't that I couldn't get through the fifth."
As lying to yourself goes, it was yet another majestic performance. Absolutely world-class, untouchable stuff. And on some level Burnett knows it, all right.
When asked Sunday if he thinks he's made a strong enough case for Girardi to give him the ball in the playoffs, Burnett smiled a little and said, "It's up to him I've been giving him headaches all year. Why not give him a good headache?"
But there's another factor in play: In a season in which the 34-year-old Garcia and 38-year-old Colon were both working farther into uncharted territory the more innings they pitched, the Yanks have known all along they may need Burnett. And so, for better or worse, the Yanks have helped enable Burnett's shows of attitude by consistently backing him almost beyond all reason, and describing even his worst starts in the sort of glass-half-full terms that Girardi lapsed back into during his pregame talk before Burnett's start on Sunday.
Referring to Burnett's previous two outings -- both Jekyll & Hyde performances -- Girardi said, "You know, if you take the last three innings in Seattle, and the first three innings against Minnesota, we need to put that together -- that's what you want.
"You're going to make some mistakes in the course of the game. And you're going to get away with some of them. But it can't change your approach to pitching."
But Burnett has routinely done just that in games this season. He abandons pitches, cruises along, then abruptly melts down. A disgusted Girardi yanked him from one start for drifting after the Yanks gave him a double-digit lead.
That didn't happen Sunday to Burnett. Not against a shell-shocked Red Sox team that may yet be on the verge of the biggest September collapse in big league history.
But, strange as it seems, the Yanks barely uttered a word about the Sox. Their focus is all on themselves. Girardi was highly complimentary of Burnett's performance and, for a change, it was all true. And Burnett, to his credit, didn't preen or say "I told you so." He just acted like he expected nothing less of himself.
But why now? "Focus," he said with a shrug.
You have to give Burnett this: His ability to self-induce a sort of healthy amnesia is impressive. Even if the Yanks choose to pitch CC Sabathia and 16-game winner Ivan Nova on short rest in their opening, best-of-five division playoff series, Burnett could yet get a whiff of the postseason at some point.
If that happens, Yanks fans should forget tearing out their hair in little tufts.
Do what Burnett does.
Just pretend it's 2009.