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A.J.'s joke: I haven't struggled in quite a while

New York Yankees pitcher A.J. Burnett speaks during

New York Yankees pitcher A.J. Burnett speaks during a news conference before ALCS Game 3 against the Texas Rangers at Yankee Stadium in New York. Photo Credit: John Dunn

There's a bright side, according to A.J. Burnett, to remaining idle for 16 days since the regular season ended. "I haven't pitched in a long time," he said, "so I haven't struggled in a long time."

The righthander smirked as he said those words Monday, proving that his sense of humor remains intact despite his disappointing season. But what kind of shape are his fastball and curveball in, especially in the wake of his worst major-league season?

Any answer to that question would simply be a guess, putting the Yankees in a tenuous position as they send Burnett to the mound Tuesday night for Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. The only thing they can do is think positive thoughts.

"As players, we always believe in each other," manager Joe Girardi said, "because we have all been through ups and downs ... and we all know what A.J. can dial up, and we believe in him."

Of course, there was a possibility that the Yankees would start CC Sabathia on short rest instead of Burnett, but that was something Burnett hadn't been thinking about. "I was told when I was pitching," Burnett said, "and I was preparing myself to pitch until told otherwise."

When Girardi was asked before Game 3 Monday if the outcome could change his pitching plans for Game 4, he stuck with the same line that he's been using for several days. " 'We are on rotation' is probably the easiest way for me to put it," he said.

If Burnett makes the Game 4 start as planned, Girardi will have another interesting decision to make: Who catches him?

Backup catcher Francisco Cervelli caught 17 of Burnett's final 18 starts this season, with the lone exception coming Aug. 2 against the Blue Jays. Pitching to Jorge Posada that day, Burnett gave up eight runs in 42/3 innings.

Asked about his Game 4 catcher, Girardi said, "We will worry about that tomorrow."

Last year, backup Jose Molina caught Burnett during the postseason except for when Posada pinch hit for him, but Burnett promised it won't be an issue if Posada is behind the plate.

"I have no worries Jorge can handle me," he said. "I know he can handle me."

In a way, Burnett seemed happy just to be considered for a playoff start after going 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA this season.

He actually started the year on a tear, going 4-0 with a 1.99 ERA after six starts. But everything quickly went downhill. During his final 27 starts, the righthander had a 6.16 ERAThe Yankees went 8-19 in those games.

His plan for Game 4 is to keep things simple and not tinker with his delivery.

"Last thing I'll start thinking about is mechanics," he said. "When I go ball one, I don't need to start thinking, 'Oh, God, what's this? What's that?' I just need to get the ball and focus on my next pitch. I think when I start thinking too much about it, that's when I start going haywire with the mechanics."

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