Martin earns Burnett's confidence

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Jorge Posada greets Russell Martin after he hit Jorge Posada greets Russell Martin after he hit a home run. (April 2, 2011) Photo Credit: David Pokress

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Jim Baumbach Newsday columnist Jim Baumbach

Jim Baumbach is an investigative / enterprise sports reporter for Newsday. A Long Island native, he started working

Two wild pitches, a passed ball and three stolen bases. That's what occurred when A.J. Burnett threw to Russell Martin for five innings two weeks ago in an exhibition game against the Blue Jays.

So when a curveball from Burnett bounced in front of the plate and scampered past Martin in the second inning of the Yankees' 10-6 win over the Tigers Saturday, it was tempting to start wondering what was in store for their oh-so-important pitcher-catcher relationship.

In his first two years as a Yankee, Burnett proved to be fickle enough that simply repeating his delivery from pitch to pitch was an issue. The last thing the Yankees want is to see Burnett having trouble connecting with another starting catcher.

Is that, then, the reason Martin felt the need to approach Burnett between innings and assure him that he had no doubt he would block his curveball?

Martin shook his head, insisting there was no bigger reason for his private message to Burnett other than feeling the need to address the issue right away. "I just wanted to make sure he knew I wasn't afraid to call it," Martin said, "and that I had confidence I could block pitches in the dirt."

But the fact that Martin repeatedly stressed to Burnett that very message -- to keep throwing his curveball and not to worry about bouncing it past Martin -- is exactly the type of moment that can prove to be a turning point in an evolving pitcher-catcher relationship.

Burnett said he appreciated the message from Martin and followed through on his request to keep throwing the curveball; 25 of his 86 pitches were curves. And even though his fastball sits in the mid-90s and has late movement, he knows he can't get by without a curveball to balance it out.

Burnett's curveball is at its best when it's bouncing right behind the plate, something that happened multiple times throughout his five-inning outing Saturday. And Martin blocked each one of them, aside from the initial wild pitch. That was significant.

"He mentioned that during the game, that he's blocking every curveball I throw," Burnett said. "When my curveball is hitting behind the plate like that, that's when it's on. So he was just like, 'Throw it again, throw it again, I'll block it.' "

Burnett's line -- three runs in five innings -- wasn't anything spectacular, but the development with his catcher took a strong step forward. Burnett won on a day when he said he was fighting a throat infection, a sinus infection and clogged ears, and Martin did more than contribute a three-run homer.

The most tense moment of Burnett's outing came in the fifth inning; the Tigers had the potential tying run at the plate in Magglio Ordoñez with runners on second and third and two outs. After Burnett jumped ahead 0-and-1, Ordoñez fouled off a 92-mph fastball and then a curveball.

Martin ran out to the mound to talk briefly with Burnett. He said he wanted to hear exactly what the pitcher wanted to throw.

Martin guessed after the game that Burnett couldn't hear him because of his clogged ears, so he was reading the catcher's lips. But the bottom line is this: The message between pitcher and catcher was sent and received.

Burnett wanted to throw a curveball, even with the potential of a wild pitch costing them a run. That made Martin's day.

"If you've got a guy on third base and you're scared to throw a pitch because you're scared it's going to go past the catcher, that's not a good feeling,'' Martin said. "The next thing you know, you hang it and there's a couple of runs on the board.''

But Burnett threw a beauty, Ordoñez swung and missed and Burnett walked off to cheers he couldn't really hear. And that was as big a moment for Martin as his homer. Maybe even bigger.

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