Over the past two seasons, my expectations for A.J. Burnett have slowly diminished. Even on his best days, I find his pitching process torturous. His stuff, which was much better when he was younger, should play better, but his inability to command even his fastball makes for games that slog on. When I watch him on TV, I try to keep myself busy lest I start to find things to throw through the television.
Tonight was A.J. night on my own six-game road trip. It was something I couldn’t avoid, and I was prepared for the worst. I even found myself defending A.J. While walking around Target Field before the game started, I found myself getting defensive as Twins fans dismissed Burnett. “Don’t worry; A.J. sucks,” one fan said to a friend. Now, it might be OK for me to think that about Burnett, but when fans of another team say the same thing about a Yankee, I take it personally. Unfortunately, Burnett’s performance couldn’t settle my silent indignation.
In what was his shortest outing of the season, A.J. Burnett recorded just five outs against a punchless Twins’ lineup. When Joe Girardi pulled an irate A.J. from the game, the right-hander had faced 12 batters and seven of them scored. He walked three, gave up five hits and threw two wild pitches as the Yanks fell by a score of 9-4. With the Red Sox loss in Kansas City, the Yanks maintained their slim half-game lead in the AL East, but the post-game questions focused squarely on A.J. Burnett.
What is an A.J. game with a controversy anyway? This tale begins with a pitch to Joe Mauer that was a close one but called a ball. With two runs in and the Yanks down 4-0, A.J. thew a pitch to Mauer that just missed. Mauer walked, and A.J. was yanked. Eventually, Luis Ayala allowed all three of his inherited runners to score, and the Yanks were down 7-0 against the Twins before the third inning.
The rest of the game was a formality. The Yanks plated a few runs but never had a rally in them. Aaron Laffey made his debut and gave up a pair of runs over three innings of work. He wasn’t particularly impressive against lefties, and he wasn’t particularly awful. As waiver acquisition go, I can’t imagine he’ll be a key part of the Yanks’ October push.
The story that developed during the second inning and after the game though has sparked some debate. When Girardi lifted Burnett, he was caught on camera saying, “This is f**king bulls**t” toward Joe Girardi. Was he talking of his early hook? Of the home plate ump’s strike zone? Burnett left the field and went into the clubhouse, and Joe Girardi followed suit. A few seconds later, both came back out.
During the post-game scrum in the clubhouse, the reporters wanted to know about Burnett, and Joe Girardi didn’t want to talk about it. He grew terse on TV with Jack Curry and wanted no part in this discussion. In fact, he was as angry as he has been during his three years with the team. “I didn’t say anything back to him,” Girardi said. “You can write what you want, you can say what you want, but he was pissed. He thought he struck out Joe Mauer.”
The Mauer at-bat would be the story. Girardi says Burnett was upset about the Mauer at-bat and went into the clubhouse to review the video. The manager and his mercurial right-hander did not exchange words in the recesses of Target Field, and the two professed their admiration for each other. “Me and AJ have mutual respect for each other,” Girardi said. “I cheer for this guy, he cheers for me and we cheer for the team.”
Burnett echoed Girardi’s explanation, and Russell Martin did too. The Yanks’ catcher said he told the departing pitcher that the Mauer pitch was a good one. Burnett reacted to Martin’s statement with anger because he wanted to have a better outing. Frustration, though, was the word of the day. Girardi was frustrated with something — the reporters grilling him, his right-hander who is now 9-10 with a 4.96 ERA, the pitch to Mauer — and Burnett too was frustrated. Whether it was with Girardi or the strike zone or his inability to harness his stuff, it doesn’t really matter.
For now, the bigger concerns are about A.J.’s role in the rotation. He will pitch on Friday against the Orioles, Girardi said tonight. The club will stick with the six-man rotation through next weekend as they need a sixth starter for the double header. Still, the Yanks’ manager wants to see something better from A.J. “We need him to pitch like he’s capable of pitching,” he said. “The last few starts he has struggled but we have to get him back on track.”
After that, though, it’s anyone’s guess. A few weeks ago, Brian Cashman told everyone to smoke “the objective pipe” when it comes to Burnett, but even objectively, he isn’t pitching like one of the top five hurlers on the Yankees. His numbers are in fact worse at this point this year than they were last year. He is, however, one of the top five most highly paid pitchers on the club, and that contract seems to loom large. No one wants a $16.5 million long man in the bullpen who doesn’t hold the faith of his manager and pitching coach.
For now, Burnett got a vote of confidence from his manager tonight, albeit a lukewarm one, and the Yanks will send A.J. out there every five days. “When you’re struggling,” Girardi said, “the only thing you can do is keeping working. It’s not like there’s some magical potion you can take.”