Burnett sharpening mental edge

burnett_275_093009.jpgBy Jon Lane
Earlier this week I had a discussion with both a mentor and a friend, and also a big Yankees fan. While handicapping the Yankees’ postseason chances, the ultimate wild card came up in the conversation, A.J. Burnett.

The right-hander’s stuff is electric. He knows it. We know it. Everyone who plays with him, and those who pay big money to watch him, knows it. Yet during the season, and throughout his career, there’s been “The Good A.J.” and “The Bad A.J.” Some starts he’s won by guile over talent, but for the most part there’s been no middle ground. He’s either really, really good, or really, really bad.

My friend, let’s call him R.J., brought up a valid point. Burnett spent Monday in Arkansas to be his father, Bill, who underwent triple-bypass heart surgery. R.J. believed this had to be weighing heavily on his mind for a couple of months. All of us have spent the season breaking down Burnett’s inconsistencies. From May 27-July 27, he was 8-2 with a
2.08 ERA, allowing three runs or less in each of his 11 starts. His next seven starts (August 1-September 1), he went 0-4, 6.54. There were those who deduced the pressure of a pennant race, combined with New York’s ridiculous expectations, were getting to him.

He’s never pitched in the postseason, but Burnett’s delivered in big spots before (see his one-hitter against the Red Sox August 7). He’s never hid from the media, made excuses or blamed Jorge Posada – when everyone was bracing and salivating for a tasty feud – no matter how big of a stinker he produced. Lose or win, Burnett, even when he used the worn “One game at a time” cliche, was always analytical. What he said made sense. His words resonated that the philosophy was much more than a cliche. It was a belief system, or what Pat Riley wrote in his book, The Winner Within a Core Covenant.

Collectively, the Yankees obeyed the code and it won them the AL East and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. To play deep into October, Burnett will have to dig deeper, and so far, so good. He held the Royals to an earned run on three hits in 6 1/3 innings with three walks and eight strikeouts Tuesday night. A big reason was that old “one pitch at a time” attitude, but again, Burnett has a way of explaining it so that you’re not rolling your eyes at some boring team speak. 

“There’s times in the year where I made pitches, they’ve gotten hits and I’ve gotten really aggravated and let little things bother me,” Burnett said. “Now, I’m pushing it aside. Instead of, ‘Why did I do that?’ it’s ‘OK, now don’t do it again.’ There’s a lot of different thinking out there and it’s paid off.”

There’s an ongoing debate that will continue probably until the Twins and Tigers decide the AL Central: Who will start Game 2 of the Division Series? Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News breaks down the splits between Burnett and, the chic choice, Andy Pettitte. You can also vote on YESNetwork.com’s home page. As of this writing, Burnett has earned 55 percent of your votes.

Based on his track record alone, I’d go with Pettitte (14-9, 3.96 in 35 postseason starts) and Joe Torre’s go-to guy in Game 2. That has neither to do with performance –  Burnett has a 1.89 ERA over his last three outings, giving up four earned runs on 17 hits and nine walks over 19 innings, striking out 25 batters – nor fear of the unknown. Burnett won’t melt under the October lights; that August night under a postseason atmosphere he one-hit Boston over 7 2/3 innings and left with the game scoreless only because Josh Beckett was just as awesome. 

“A lot of times, people say, ‘He has no playoff experience,’ then guys go out that have no playoff experience and play extremely well,” said Joe Girardi. “We have expectations of him. There are a lot of games that you pitch that have playoff implications or playoff atmosphere that we play in during the course of the year, and some of those games, he’s pitched really well.

“Everyone is different. Until that person goes through it you really don’t know.”

Burnett knows why he was brought here. He knows what will be at stake – “The prize is next month,” Girardi told him – and what he has to do. It’ll be pass or fail for the right-hander, and not because he’ll fold mentally.

“As long as I’m clear upstairs I’m ready,” said Burnett. “The past couple of weeks have been a real important stretch for me.”

The next few will be, next to precious time spent with his father, the most important of his life. No explanations will be necessary.

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