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SportsColumnistsAnthony Rieber

Bittersweet victory for Yankees' Burnett

A.J. Burnett looks on in an early September

A.J. Burnett looks on in an early September game. He is heading back to Arkansas to be with his family Monday.

While his Yankees teammates presumably danced the night away after clinching the American League East title Sunday - and some probably didn't roll into bed until this very morning - A.J. Burnett was on a flight to Little Rock, Ark.

Burnett's father, Bill, is scheduled for triple-bypass heart surgery Monday. A.J. originally was supposed to miss Sunday's game to be with his dad, but a voice on the other end of the phone told him to take care of something else first.

>> See photos of the Yankees celebrating their AL East crown

"I was going to fly home -- I'm going to actually fly home in a couple of hours -- but he told me to stay and celebrate because he figured a good thing was going to happen today," Burnett said. "It was fun. I'm glad I did."

Burnett played no role in the Yankees' 4-2 division-clinching victory over the Red Sox. That will change in his first postseason, when he either will be their No. 2 or 3 starter. Pretty large role.

The talented and inconsistent righthander will begin to answer an important question: Can he be counted on when it matters?

At least Bill Burnett knows the answer to that in a far more important arena than the playoffs.

We have more than a week before we have to debate A.J.'s postseason readiness, and we also have plenty of time before we first- or second-guess Joe Girardi about his choice of pitching either Burnett or Andy Pettitte in Game 2. (Instant opinion: Start Pettitte in Game 2 because he's more reliable and also would get Game 5.)

Sunday, Burnett literally soaked in the joy around him. For the most part, he was one of the few relatively subdued players as a champagne- and beer-fueled celebration turned the team's pristine and high-tech clubhouse into something closer to what a locker room is supposed to smell like.

Burnett stood near his locker sipping a light beer as players doused each other, doused Yankees support staff, doused some female media members far too enthusiastically and generally acted like idiots.

In this case, most of that was normal and OK, although it wouldn't have been funny if the cork that Nick Swisher accidentally launched into CC Sabathia's back had instead struck his left shoulder blade.

Burnett is no stranger to Yankees celebrations. He started the new tradition of hitting the star of a walk-off win in the face with a pie. Burnett got to do it 14 times. That's two more wins than he has in what for him has been a typically uneven season. Flashes of brilliance and flashes of not so much. But Burnett held up physically to make 31 starts. He will pitch again Tuesday against the Royals, assuming everything goes all right at home with his father, who is in his 60s but whose exact age A.J. asked to keep private.

"It's been on my mind about a week now," Burnett said. "He's a strong man, so I'm more concerned about my mom. The fact that I get to go home and be with him means a lot to me."

Burnett got a little beer poured on his back during a YES interview, but he seemed content to stand to the side in his gray "AL East Champion" T-shirt. Pettitte actually joined him for the interview, his left arm around Burnett's shoulder.

Nothing brings a team together like winning. The Yankees hope to have three more of these celebrations.

"It's awesome, man," Burnett said as he watched. "It's my first one and it's the reason I came here. It means a lot."

It does mean a lot. Just not as much as what will be going on in Little Rock Monday.

>> See photos of the Yankees celebrating their AL East crown

>> See some of the Yankees' top moments of 2009

>> Read about the Yankees' biggest wins this year

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