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Which Burnett will we see to open season?

A.J. Burnett and Yankees fans are hoping his

A.J. Burnett and Yankees fans are hoping his inconsistent 2010 season was an aberration. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The first day he talked to the media during spring training, A.J. Burnett wanted to make something clear.

Last year, he said, was last year. It's in the past, irrelevant.

He was looking forward to talking about 2011, not 2010.

Then Burnett spent much of spring training discussing 2010.

And for good reason.

The righthander, who will make his first regular-season start Saturday afternoon against the Tigers, is coming off a career-worst season, one in which he was 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA after going 4-0 with a 1.99 ERA through his first six starts.

Even while Burnett wanted to focus on the present and future, he understood the questions regarding the past.

"I know the cameras are on me," he said early in spring training. "I know this is my spring this year. I'm not blind to that. I'm all for it."

After working with new pitching coach Larry Rothschild, Burnett showed signs of promise, recording a 2.77 ERA in four exhibition starts. He allowed nine hits, walked none and struck out 11 in 13 innings. (Burnett's fifth scheduled start was canceled because of rain; he instead threw a simulated game, and his final outing came in a minor-league game).

His first three starts were anywhere from solid to outstanding, with his fourth the only clunker. That was March 18 against the Blue Jays, when he allowed four runs -- two earned -- and four hits in five innings, striking out five with two wild pitches and a hit batsman. He also allowed a home run by his former catcher, Jose Molina. But even with the negative results that day, he was pleased with his curveball.

One opposing scout who was at that game shook his head and called the outing "just terrible."

"But that's who he is," the scout said. "The days he's on, he's a 1. Days he's not, get the bullpen ready early."

Another talent evaluator saw a difference in Burnett in spring training, though he too hedged his bets. "His delivery's a lot better," he said. "There's a big difference in his stride direction. The key is, can he maintain it when the heat is on?"

And the heat, most assuredly, will be on. The Yankees know it. Burnett knows it, too.

The questions about the 2011 Yankees revolve around their rotation. CC Sabathia is a given, but there are no sure things beyond him. Simply put, it's difficult to imagine the Yankees making the playoffs if their No. 2 starter -- Burnett -- doesn't rebound in a big way.

Beginning in January, Burnett and Rothschild worked to correct a slight mechanical flaw in the righthander's delivery. They believe it contributed to his positive results in spring training and will lead to more consistency in the regular season.

But the first hiccup is sure to prompt more reflection on 2010, and manager Joe Girardi said Thursday that there's some concern on his part about Burnett trying to permanently erase that season in one regular-season start.

"A lot of time you worry about that with all your players the first time they go out," Girardi said before acknowledging that Burnett is a little different case. "For A.J., A.J. has talked about he understands his responsibilities. I think A.J. went through the winter, started making changes and understood how important he is to this team. So yes, I do worry about that a little bit."

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