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Yankees Fans: Caught Between a Rock & a Headcase

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 19:  A.J. Burnett #34 of the New York Yankees reacts after giving up a three-run home run to Bengie Molina #11 of the Texas Rangers in the top of the sixth inning in Game Four of the ALCS during the 2010 MLB Playoffs at Yankee Stadium on October 19, 2010 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images
Joseph JonesContributor IIIMarch 20, 2011

Man. Talk about living on the edge.

There is not a single player on the New York Yankees‘ roster who is going to have more of an influence on the eventual outcome of the team’s 2011 season than A.J. Burnett.

Neither A-Rod nor Derek Jeter nor Robby Cano nor CC Sabathia nor even Mariano Rivera will have as much of a say in whether there is a parade than Burnett.

The talented, erratic, psychologically fragile and oftentimes maddening 6-foot-5 bundle of body ink and contradictions is where it starts and where it ends.

I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie, never one to turn down a good opportunity to get a little “rush” here or there, but the last time I went into something with this kind of mixture of joy, excitement and trepidation involved me jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.

It’s a joyous and exciting occasion because, hell, it’s almost opening day for Major League Baseball.  Those of you that know me have heard me say “it’s not a sport, it’s a religion” at least once in your lifetime.  I just cannot properly put to words the depth of my love for this game.

But I just can’t wash away the anxiety and trepidation of knowing that the entire season may hinge on what's rattling around the space between Allan James Burnett’s ears.

With a patchwork rotation that includes their ace C.C. Sabathia, an evolving Phil Hughes (he is good…but still maturing), another 24 year old (Ivan Nova) with seven Major League starts to his name and a pair of former studs-turned-reclamation-projects (Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon), the Yanks finds themselves in the unenviable position of having to hope that A.J. comes up big this year.

But the glow of his 2009 World Series duel with Pedro Martinez has long since faded into Yankee lore, and right now, we’re stuck with a guy who went 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA last season and lost the faith of his manager, subsequently being removed from the rotation for the American League Divisional Series against the Minnesota Twins.

2010 was a train wreck of a season for Burnett.  He finished the year with that 10-15 record and a bloated ERA, suffered self-inflicted cuts in both palms during a clubhouse tantrum, and in September, he showed up to Camden Yards (Baltimore) with a mysterious black eye. Burnett’s 15 losses also marked the most decisions a Yankees pitcher has dropped in a single season since Melido Perez lost 16 games in 1992.

Clearly, that’s the sort of list that forces “experts” to forecast the worst this year for Burnett.

Still, here is what makes Burnett, despite having shortcomings that are often attributed to his emotional volatility, so paradoxical.  He has one of the best pitching arms in the sport of baseball.

At his best, Burnett features a mid-90s fastball, which appears faster when he’s able to get ahead with his devastating curveball, and a change-up that throws hitters expecting another pitch in his arsenal off balance.

With a delivery streamlined by new pitching coach Larry Rothschild, Burnett has thrown his fastball with more precision, his curve with better tilt and he even has deployed a changeup with greater frequency and success.

But in case you forgot, before he settled into one of the worst seasons ever by a full-time Yankees starter, Burnett began 2010 at 4-0 with a 1.99 ERA and was 6-2 with a 3.28 ERA at the end of June.

So a snapshot in spring is not enough. The Yankees need what Burnett has not been good at—full concentration for a full season.

Now, to be fair, it isn’t like the Yankees are the only playoff hopeful that is pinning their hopes (and October dreams) on a “Nuke LaLoosh”-like hurler.

The Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Twins can relate. They need huge turnarounds from key guys in Rick Porcello, Scott Kazmir and Nick Blackburn respectively and the Chicago Cubs must hope that they get the good Carlos Zambrano more often than the bad Zambrano.

The Chicago White Sox and New York Mets have much invested in the renewed health of Jake Peavy and Johan Santana. Kyle Lohse appears a lost cause in St. Louis, even though he has two years and almost $24 million left on his contract and the Boston Red Sox are rumored to be shopping Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has joined the San Francisco Giants’ Barry Zito as an ace turned No. 6 starter it seems.

No comeback candidate is more crucial than Burnett, however, and he knows it.

“There’s been a lot said,” Burnett said. “Why wouldn’t it, after what I did last year? It’s my job to go out and shut some mouths and do what I can do and not worry about it.”

This article is also featured on You're Killin' Me, Smalls!

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