It started off so beautifully. For three innings, A.J. Burnett had the Minnesota Twins right where he wanted them. He was throwing with authority, he had a low pitch count and he was piling up strikeout after strikeout.
But then, quicker than a seasoned prosecutor can unravel a 6-year-old's dog-ate-my-homework story, it all fell apart again for the Yankees' inconsistent righthander Monday. After three dominant innings in which he had six strikeouts, Burnett gave up a run in the fourth, then was pulled after giving up three straight hits, including a two-run home run by Michael Cuddyer, to start the fifth.
"He was great for three innings, he made a mistake or two and then he kind of lost his slot," Joe Girardi said. "He got in trouble again in the fifth and I felt it was time to make a change."
About the only positive thing you could say about Burnett's performance in what ended up being a 6-4 Yankees win is that it made it possible for Mariano Rivera to set a major-league record with his 602nd save.
Lost in all the hoopla over Rivera's historic performance, however, was that the Yankees have continued cause for concern when it comes to the strength of their starting pitching heading into the postseason. The rotation hasn't been making it very deep into games lately, and Girardi said before Monday's game that he was hoping to see Burnett continue to show improvement. Burnett had pitched relatively well in his previous three starts. In his most recent outing against Seattle, he gave up just two runs in six innings, shutting down the Mariners in his final three innings.
Burnett (10-11, 5.28 ERA) said that he could have worked out his problems if he had been allowed to stay in the game.
"I thought my curveball was not as aggressive in the strike zone," he said when asked about what happened after three innings. "But who's to say I wouldn't have gotten it back. That's the way I look at it. I gave up a couple of runs and I struck out eight. I was very strong. I was nasty. And then I had a couple of hiccups."
There was no discussion when Girardi came out to the mound to tell Burnett his day was over after four-plus innings. The manager simply took the ball out of his pitcher's hand. Burnett said that is his manager's job, but he still believes he could have stayed out there.
"I was feeling great," he said. "I mis-located a heater and I hung a hook, but my point is to say who is to say I wouldn't get it back. Of course, I don't want to come out of a game. But Joe has been doing it all year. He has to make sure he keeps his team in the game to get a 'W.' "