August 18, 2019

Losing by Winning

September 26, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Sunday afternoon, embattled starter A.J. Burnett, with his postseason life largely on the line, toed the rubber against the freefalling Boston Red Sox.  Seven and two-thirds of an inning later, Burnett moseyed toward the Yankees dugout, having struck out six, allowed but two earned runs, and driven another nail into the quickly closing coffin surrounding the Red Sox season.  With the capacity crowd on its feet loudly cheering his name, Burnett ambled to the bench with all the alacrity of Mo Vaughn heading to a salad bar, clearly trying his hardest to make that moment last forever.

The Yankees had clinched everything they possibly could, they had the Sox under their boots, and the quixotic Burnett had thrown a gem.

Unfortunately, for Joe Girardi, that’s the worst thing that could have happened.

Sunday afternoon shouldn’t have changed anything.  With Burnett’s impressive performance, where he dominated one of the best offenses in the league, he LOWERED his ERA to 5.16.  The next time Burnett takes the mound, he’s still going to be a starter with only two pitches that are only barely above average.  He’s still going to be the guy that averaged nearly four walks per nine innings this season.  He’s still going to be a pitcher who carries five cheap wins (defined by baseball-reference.com as wins in which a starting pitcher allowed more than three runs in less than six innings of work) as about 50% of his win total.

To call Burnett a question mark in the Yankees rotation would be an insult to question marks.  Burnett’s been an ellipsis, urging Girardi to skip his spot in the rotation.  He’s been an exclamation mark of atrociousness.  In fact, Burnett has become a tilde randomly slotted into a sentence, forcing viewers to wonder just what the hell he’s doing there.

Burnett shouldn’t have a shot at getting a postseason start on a World Series.  Yet the Yankees have been so strapped to find a pitcher to back up CC Sabathia that following Sunday’s performance, manager Joe Girardi has no choice but to consider slotting Burnett into the role of third starter.

With Ivan Nova probably earning the number two spot, and the combination of Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon—Fredolo Garcon—doing nothing to convince anybody otherwise, this Sunday may have been Burnett’s October audition.  Shockingly, like Jessie Pinkman taking charge of the cartel’s meth lab in last week’s Breaking Bad, he excelled.

That said, somewhere in the back of Girardi’s mind, he knows Burnett’s no good for him.  He knows that given the right time and the right opportunity, Burnett’s diminished stuff and poor mindset could burn him.

In college, my buddy Heinz and I would watch football every Sunday.  Often, we would order a large pizza full of fresh and delicious toppings.  For us, three slices in one sitting was no problem.  Unfortunately, this pie had eight slices.  That always left two pieces of lukewarm pizza, covered with an odd mixture of slowly congealing cheese and grease.

We knew that last slice offered diminishing returns.  At its current temperature it was never going to live up to the promise it originally held when we lifted the box cover revealing that steamy gooey pizza goodness.  We knew it was going to push us over the edge from satisfied and entertained to uncomfortable and gassy.  However, out of all the times we must have ordered that pizza, I can’t think of one when we left those two slices alone.

They were just too much of a temptation.

For Joe Girardi, A.J. Burnett is that last slice of pizza.  Everything about him—the movement on his pitches, the tall gangly body-type, the intense stare, the wisps of hair under his lip—screams big game pitcher.  A.J. Burnett as the idea of “pitcher” is too much to ignore.  Yet every time he pitches, he reminds me of the way I felt after downing that last slice.

Uncomfortable.  Full of regret.

And a little gassy.

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