It was the snapshot that summed up a season: A.J. Burnett standing on the mound in disbelief, his hands on top of his head, while a pumped up Bengie Molina carried his impressive gut around the base-paths at Yankee Stadium.
The Texas catcher's three-run homer in Game Four of the ALCS neatly accomplished two feats—it effectively ended the Yankees' repeat hopes while also putting a bow on Burnett's miserable second season in the Bronx.
How awful was Burnett in 2010? He was Creed-awful. He was 2001 Kobe Bryant rap single "K.O.B.E."-awful. He was Dane Cook movie-awful. You hear me? Dane Cook movie-awful, people! Have you ever seen My Best Friend's Girl?
Thirty-three starts, 186 2/3 innings, 204 hits, 5.26 ERA, a 10-15 record—and those numbers don't begin to do justice to how bad Burnett was for long stretches in 2010. When Dave Eiland mysteriously disappeared for six weeks last summer, perhaps we all missed the obvious explanation—Burnett had driven the beleaguered pitching coach into hiding.
Enter Larry Rothschild, whose principle job as Eiland's replacement was to somehow fix a very expensive broken piece of machinery. It's pretty much a sure thing that part of Rothschild's interview process involved a detailed battle plan for salvaging Burnett, who's entering the third-year of a getting-worse-by-the-minute five-year, $82.5 million deal signed in December 2008.
Rothschild has likely studied plenty of tape from Burnett's 2010 season, which I surmise was as pleasurable as watching The Human Centipede in 3D. What he saw was two pitchers—one very good (April, May, July) and one comically bad (June, August, September). After escaping the maniacal clutches of Carlos Zambrano in Chicago, Rothschild must be wondering what he did to deserve this.
He'll quickly learn that when it comes to Burnett, it's all about taking the good with the bad. That's something Brian Cashman knew even before he brought the pitcher to New York. Sure, Burnett let Molina and the Rangers throw a Molotov cocktail at their 2010 postseason, but we can't forget starts like Game Two of the 2009 World Series, when Burnett overwhelmed a loaded Phillies lineup over seven brilliant innings.
His performance that night was one of the best—and most important—in recent franchise playoff history. It makes it all the more frustrating when he goes through funks like last June, when he went 0-5 with a 11.35 ERA. It's hard to be that dreadful. It's almost as if there's an A.J. Burnett doppelganger out there pulling a Frank Drebin/Enrico Pallazzo move as the real Allan James lays hog-tied in the clubhouse.
Now, the scary part. When Andy Pettitte decided to stay in Deer Park and Cliff Lee had his cheese-steak epiphany, Burnett suddenly, unbelievably, became the key to the Yankees' 2011 season. I peed myself a little just writing that last sentence. Seriously.
If Burnett can't figure out a way to turn it around, the Yankees have virtually no chance of going back to the postseason. As it stands, the team already needs something in the neighborhood of 40 wins between CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes, the former coming off knee surgery and the latter armed with just one full season of starting experience. The back end of the rotation is a well-chronicled work in progress, making Burnett the link between both sides of the rotation.
You know that with Burnett we won't get much in the way of middle ground. He'll either be the glue that holds the rotation together, or he'll be the one who flicks the match on a haystack soaked in kerosene. In other words, if Burnett didn't already have enough pressure on himself to get his career back on track, he also holds his team's fate in his hands.
I need to go lay down.
Dan Hanzus writes three columns a week on his New York Yankees site, River & Sunset. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.