After Andy Pettitte finished the sixth inning on Monday, there was a sense of relief. He was going on nine days’ rest in an attempt to rest his fatigued shoulder, something that concerned anyone with a stake in the Yankees’ chances. Andy passed his test, and will have two more tune-up starts before the playoffs. Next up on the checklist: A.J. Burnett. After a few rough starts in the past two months he’s looked good in his last couple of starts, helping ease concern.
As with Pettitte’s start, A.J.’s latest start wasn’t his best. He didn’t make it out of the sixth, allowing 10 baserunners along the way. But he worked out of trouble most of the time, using a sharp curveball to keep the Angels hitters off-balance. Burnett ended the day with 11 strikeouts, a sign that he had his best stuff. He also threw about 65 percent strikes, a good sign for his control, though the three walks don’t help that case. Of the Angels’ seven hits, only two were for extra bases.
We’ve seen Burnett at his best this season. He’s had stretches — well, one notable stretch — of absolute dominance. Unfortunately, he’s also had skids where it seems a team of David Ecksteins can rock him. He had a few of the latter at the end of August and into September, but over his past two starts A.J. has been much better. Jose Molina thinks it’s his last four starts, noting that one bad pitch, the grand slam to Brian Roberts, tainted Burnett’s start against the Orioles. In any case, his recent outings help the Yankees brass sleep a bit easier over the season’s final week and a half.
This doesn’t completely erase the concern. If we’ve learned anything from Burnett this season, anything can happen in any given start. Bad A.J. might show up and give up seven runs over four innings. Good A.J. might show up and dominate through seven. Or we might get that happy medium, the six-inning, three-run A.J. that walks a few too many guys but limits the damage. What alleviates the concern is that A.J. isn’t going into the postseason riding a losing streak.
It’s hard to believe, but Burnett has just one more start in the 2009 season, the middle game of the Kansas City series. The Yanks might juggle, starting Burnett on the season’s final day so he doesn’t have a huge gap between his final one and his first playoff start. If A.J. looks anything like he did yesterday or last Friday, it will go a long way in boosting confidence in the team heading to the playoffs.
Next up on the checklist: Joba Chamberlain. The team’s fourth starter draws the Red Sox on Friday and then the Royals on the 30th before packing it in for the regular season. How he looks in those two starts could determine whether the Yankees take the long or the short ALDS, though it seems they’re preparing for the long series. Joba would not pitch until the ALCS, meaning he’d pitch a maximum two games in the playoffs. That eases concern right off the bat, no?