New York Yankees: Did A.J. Burnett Earn Back His Playoff Rotation Spot?

Doug RushSenior Analyst ISeptember 28, 2011

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 25:  A.J. Burnett #34 of the New York Yankees pitches against the Boston Red Sox on September 25, 2011 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

Wednesday will be the final regular season game of 2011 and the postseason will begin Friday.

The Yankees wrapped up the American League East title and home-field advantage with the best record in the A.L., and will likely face either the Detroit Tigers or the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series.

Going into the playoffs, we have all wondered who would be starting for the Yankees in the games. We know CC Sabathia will be the Game 1 starter and Ivan Nova will be the Game 2 starter. Bartolo Colon may find himself in the rotation after giving the Yankees a lot of consistent starts. Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia will likely come out of the bullpen as long relievers if any of the starters falter.

That leaves A.J. Burnett, who we all thought would never see the light of day in the playoffs.

But now, things may be a little different.

If Burnett's last start had any effect on the Yankees coaching staff, Burnett could have earned his way back into the rotation. On Sunday against the Boston Red Sox, Burnett went 7.2 innings, allowed five hits, two runs, walked two, struck out six and picked up the win.

Ever since coming to the Yankees, Burnett has struggled tremendously against Boston. They always seem to fluster Burnett and whack him around the park. But not on Sunday. Burnett looked like the guy that was given an $82.5 million contract.

Burnett looked like the Game 2 starter from the 2009 World Series for the Yankees.

Now, in his previous start back on September 19 against the Minnesota Twins, Burnett struck out eight, but he struggled to get through four innings, allowing nine hits and four runs in a no-decision. But in the previous start before that against the Seattle Mariners on September 13, Burnett went six innings, allowed four hits, two runs, two walks, struck out 11 and picked up the win on the road.

Burnett is now 11-11 with a 5.16 ERA in 190 innings, with 173 strikeouts.

He's been one of the most inconsistent pitchers in all of baseball—and especially for the Yankees. But he still has that swing-and-miss type of stuff that could translate well into the playoffs, pending he doesn't have a mental blowup on the mound.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 25:  A.J. Burnett #34 of the New York Yankees salutes the crowd as he leaves the game in the eighth inning against the Boston Red Sox on September 25, 2011 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Nick L
Nick Laham/Getty Images

Last year in the playoffs, with the Yankees down 2-1, Burnett took the ball in Game 4 of the ALCS against the Rangers and was pitching very well, pitching with a 3-2 lead going into the sixth inning. But in the sixth inning, with two outs and a runner on first, Joe Girardi had Burnett intentionally walk David Murphy to face Yankee-killer Bengie Molina. Molina smacked a three-run home run to give Texas a 5-3 lead. Eventually, Texas won 10-3 and took a 3-1 lead in the series, going on to won the ALCS 4-2.

If Burnett had faced Murphy and gotten out of the inning, that game would have gone a whole lot differently and so might have the series. But because Girardi made the error in judgment, we'll never know, and because of it, Burnett took the loss in his only playoff start last year.

This year, Burnett could get the ball for a Game 3 or even Game 4, depending if Girardi wants to start Colon as well.

On Friday, the ALDS will start for the Yankees and Girardi will have to decide soon who he wants to be in the playoff rotation. By pitching well in his last few starts, Burnett may have found himself pitching in October. Who would have thought that back in July or August when he wasn't winning?

Two years ago, Burnett came up huge for the Yankees, pitching very well in Game 2 of the World Series, out-pitching Pedro Martinez, and won the game 3-1. That is the Burnett the Yankees will need in October.

The only question is, will he show up when Girardi hands him the ball?