Yanks: A.J. Burnett on short leash

Updated: October 4, 2011, 11:10 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

DETROIT -- As votes of confidence go, this one was less than a ringing endorsement.

Asked if he was still absolutely committed to starting A.J. Burnett in Tuesday night's Game 4 of the ALDS if the New York Yankees happened to lose Game 3 to the Detroit Tigers and Justin Verlander, manager Joe Girardi's response was practically inaudible.

"Yeah," Girardi said. "I mean, who am I going to go to? Mo (Mariano Rivera)?"

Because of the rainstorm that split Game 1 into a two-day affair, the fate of the Yankees' 2011 season might very well rest in the erratic right hand of Burnett.

"I think A.J. is going to take the mentality of, 'I have to pitch well,' no matter where the series is, I do," Girardi said. "The one thing about A.J. is he's never backed down from a challenge. This is a guy that's always went out there and taken the ball and said, 'I'm gonna do the best I can.' And that's what he'll do."

But Girardi conceded that if Burnett runs into trouble early in the game, "I could have a very short leash (on him)."

That was one of the reasons why Girardi chose to go to Cory Wade in the seventh inning and Luis Ayala in the ninth inning of Sunday's Game 2 rather than his usual progression of Rafael Soriano, David Robertson and Mariano Rivera to pitch the final three innings of the game.

Ayala wound up allowing the Tigers to tack a run onto their 4-1 lead, and wound up holding off a bottom-of-the-ninth rally to escape with a 5-3 victory.

CC Sabathia was bested by Verlander as the Tigers won 5-4 Monday night to put the Yankees on the brink. Now it all rides on Burnett on Tuesday, a prospect that may frighten Yankees fans and prompt a lukewarm reaction from the manager, but did not seem to daunt Burnett at all, at least in an interview session Monday.

"I been proving people wrong my whole career, it seems like," Burnett said. "People are entitled to their opinion, and obviously I give them reasons here and there to doubt. But the bottom line is I have confidence in myself. I'm not going to go out and try to prove anything. I'm going to go try and win a ballgame."

Burnett followed a disastrous 2010 season (10-15, 5.26 ERA) with a disappointing 2011 in which he went 11-11 with a 5.15 ERA and was removed from the rotation for this series until the rain-suspended Game 1 forced Girardi to re-insert him for Game 4.

But it was a loose, seemingly confident Burnett who met the media Monday night before Game 3.

"Believe it or not, I have pretty good confidence every start," he said. "I always go out believing I can throw a no-hitter, even last year when I couldn't get out of the first inning. I had good games and bad games this season, but my confidence has never been a problem."

Burnett had posted an 11.36 ERA for the month of August, but Girardi pointed to Burnett's September, in which he went 2-0 with a 4.30 ERA, struck out 36 batters in 29 1/3 innings and worked into the eighth inning against the Red Sox allowing just two runs, as indications Burnett was ready to pitch well Tuesday night.

"I expect him to go out and pitch well, I do," Girardi said. "He hadn't started in a while and he pitched pretty decent against Texas last year (in Game 4 of the ALCS, in which he allowed 5 runs in 6 innings and took the loss.) I think he's going to relish the opportunity to change the script a little bit here."

Said Burnett: "You can't count me out. I'm going to bring everything I've got and just let A.J. loose out there."

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com.

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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