Burnett places pressure on himself
Catcher debate no excuse as righty makes first playoff start
NEW YORK -- Forget the catcher controversy for a moment. More important than anything will be the man on the mound.
A.J. Burnett has earned the Yankees' Game 2 assignment for the American League Division Series against the Twins on Friday at 6:07 p.m. ET on TBS, and he alone -- not Jorge Posada or Jose Molina -- will determine its success.
"My good games, I'm right," Burnett said. "And my bad games, it's not the catcher. It's me."
But it takes two to make a battery. When Yankees manager Joe Girardi first told Burnett that he had earned the assignment against the Twins -- who find themselves in a 1-0 series hole after Wednesday's 7-2 New York win -- he also mentioned that Burnett would be throwing to Molina, who has caught the right-hander's previous six starts, rather than Posada.
"I guess it's a comfort level," Burnett said. "It's maybe having the same guy out there every day and not mixing it in and out. And just getting the feel of him wanting to know what I want to do on a consistent basis instead of having to come in and out and figure out what we're doing."
Though the choice miffed Posada, both he and Burnett admitted that it was an expected one. Since Burnett appeared to lash out against Posada in a blowout loss to the Red Sox in August, the perception around the Yankees has been that the two no longer made an effective battery. And the numbers appear to agree.
In 16 starts throwing to Posada, Burnett held opposing batters to a .270 average, going 5-5 with a 4.96 ERA in those games. In 11 starts with Molina, Burnett was 5-2 with a 3.28 ERA, with opposing batters hitting just .221 off him.
THE 1-0 SERIESThe advantage of winning Game 1 of a Division Series is far more pronounced in the National League than in the American League since DS play began in 1995.
Records of teams going up 1-0:
- ALDS 14-14
- NLDS 25-3
- All DS 39-17
- All Series 153-84
Teams to come back from 1-0 in ALDS:
- 2006 Tigers (lost World Series)
- 2005 Angels (lost ALCS)
- 2004 Yankees (lost ALCS)
- 2003 Red Sox (lost ALCS)
- 2003 Yankees (lost World Series)
- 2002 Angels (won World Series)
- 2001 Yankees (lost World Series)
- 2001 Mariners (lost ALCS)
- 2000 Yankees (won World Series)
- 1999 Red Sox (lost ALCS)
- 1998 Indians (lost ALCS)
- 1997 Indians (lost World Series)
- 1996 Yankees (won World Series)
- 1995 Mariners (lost ALCS)
Both Burnett and Girardi swear that the right-hander did not request to pitch to Molina, though Burnett has been unable to dodge the perception that he and Posada do not get along.
"It's making me out to be a bad guy again," said Burnett, who lauded Posada as a leader both on and off the field. "If you ask people who I've played with, I don't show guys up."
Regardless of the situation, October is not a time for rifts. Simply put, the Yankees need Burnett to be sharp, like he has been for most of this season.
"A.J. has been on a roll for us," Girardi said. "He did it during the middle of the season where he got on a long roll. I feel good about A.J. going out [Friday] because of the way he's been throwing the ball."
Every bit as good as CC Sabathia for much of the summer, Burnett began to falter in mid-August, losing three straight games and watching his ERA skyrocket. But with Molina, he transformed back into the sharp Burnett in September, in the process regaining a Game 2 assignment that nearly fell to veteran Andy Pettitte instead.
Certainly, Burnett boasts better stuff than Pettitte, and he has been considerably better at home, where he has posted a 3.51 ERA compared to a 4.59 ERA on the road. But Burnett has also proven vulnerable to mound meltdowns and big innings, making him a major risk in a best-of-five series.
"We looked at a lot of different things, home and road splits," Girardi said of his Game 2 decision. "We looked at matchups against the teams. We looked at left, right, left. It was a combination of a lot of things."
Against the Twins this season, Burnett was 1-0 with a 2.77 ERA in two starts -- though he did issue 10 free passes in those games. The walks never came back to haunt him, however, in large part because of his ability to limit extra-base hits. Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer, for example, is a lifetime .385 hitter against Burnett, but just one of the likely AL Most Valuable Player's five hits has gone for extra bases. Outfielder Jason Kubel has a .294 career average against Burnett, but merely a .353 slugging percentage.
It will be up to Burnett to continue that relative success in Game 2.
"I've waited a long time for this," Burnett said.
And indeed, he has. Though Burnett was a member of the 2003 Marlins team that upset the Yankees in the World Series, he was injured and unable to participate -- an experience that he said left him only hungrier for a title that he could call his own.
Another opportunity never surfaced in Toronto, Burnett's next Major League stop, but he has finally arrived in the Bronx. His brother will be there. His wife and kids will, too.
"I'm just looking forward to getting out there, man," Burnett said, "and getting my first pitch out of the way.
"It's been a long road. I finally got here. A lot of injuries. Obviously, I take care of myself better than I did in the past. It's been a long time and I finally get the chance."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.