Last time A.J. Burnett pitched at the Trop he went eight innings on 103 pitches, allowing three hits and walking one while striking out nine Rays. He wasn’t quite that good last night, but he still pitched seven strong, allowing just one unearned run on two hits and two walks. It was just the kind of opening performance the Yankees needed as they attempt to bury the Rays this week. Combined with an offensive outburst it led to an 11-4 Yankees victory.
Despite excellent results, Burnett’s pitch count rose quickly. He faced just four batters in each of the first three innings, and then he faced the minimum in the fourth and fifth before facing four again in the sixth. At that point he had thrown 105 pitches, but with a short bullpen Joe Girardi sent him out there for the seventh inning. Thankfully it was a quick inning, aided by Carlos Pena’s first-pitch groundout to short.
Was it concerning that Girardi sent out Burnett for the seventh with over 100 pitches? A bit, but considering the circumstances it wasn’t the worst move. It’s the end of July, so he’s used to the work load. He’s a vet who has racked up pitch counts before. The game was inside, so there were no concerns about the conditions. With Coke and Hughes unavailable, it’s understandable why Girardi wanted to get seven out of his starter.
On the other hand, it’s always an oddity these days to see a manager let a pitcher with over 100 pitches start a new inning. Maybe it’s just our modern bias towards the 100-pitch milestone, and it’s not really that big a deal at all. But for someone with Burnett’s injury history, it’s hard not to be concerned. It’s probably no big deal, but it’s tough to ignore, again, because of our modern biases.
High pitch count or not, Burnett was on his game last night. He allowed just five base runners through seven innings, one of whom, B.J. Upton, reached on a dropped third strike, and another of whom was erased by a double play. It’s yet another in A.J.’s recent string of excellent starts. He’s certainly among the Yankees players of the month in July. He’s got my vote, even over Hughes.
The offense wasted little time in staking Burnett to a lead. James Shields looked to be on his game in the first, but the Yanks pounced in the second. It took them two pitches to rack up two hits and a run. Hideki struck first with a single, and then scored all the way from first on a Jorge Posada gapper. As if Hideki’s 270-foot sprint wasn’t bizarre enough, Robinson Cano got ahead in the count 3-0 in the next at bat. He then whaled a 3-1 pitch all the way to the wall. It looked as if Gabe Gross would catch it at the front of the warning track, but the ball ended up sailing a bit further, bouncing off the top of the wall. Posada scored and Cano moved into third, to score on a ground out. The Yanks had an early 3-0 lead.
Subsequent innings of silence are always golden when you have a lead, and that’s what the next few were for the Yankees. Then they struck again in the sixth. Robinson Cano, who walked in the fourth, took the first pitch he saw to dead center for the Yanks’ fourth run. Nick Swisher would follow up two pitches later with a moon shot to right. It was his third homer at the Trop this season. He’d later add his fourth as an insurance run.
The Yankees offensive night speaks for itself: 11 runs, 15 hits, 3 doubles, 1 triple, 4 homers, 7 walks. A-Rod doubled in two insurance runs on his birthday, though given how Albaladejo pitched in the eighth, those runs provided some security. Also, congratulations to Johnny Damon on hitting his 200th career home run, a three-run blast in the ninth. Of those 200 career jacks, Damon has hit 70 with the Yankees in the three-plus years he’s been with the club. That’s already 14 more than he hit with Boston and five more than he hit with KC.
As mentioned, things got a bit shaky with Alabaladejo in the eighth. After opening the inning with a strikeout, he walked Jason Bartlett and then let up a double to B.J. Upton. Following a Carl Crawford sac fly, he hit Evan Longoria in the elbow, then gave up a single to Ben Zobrist. That was enough for Girardi. In came David Robertson in what was technically a save situation, with Pat Burrell standing in the on-deck circle as the tying run. Robertson got Pena swinging to end the threat. The Yanks would then add on their insurance, and Robertson finished off the Rays in the ninth after allowing a leadoff homer to Pat the Bat.
The loss puts Tampa Bay 7.5 games out of the division, with Scott Kazmir on tap to try and staunch the bleeding. The Yanks will counter with their ace, CC Sabathia. Another Yanks win could be devastating to the Rays. It would push them 8.5 games out of the division, with the possibility of a sweep looming. Even with the struggling Kazmir on the mound, do not take the Rays lightly tomorrow. They know what’s at stake.