10/13/2010 10:23 AM ET
Burnett can salvage part of season
Righty won't erase terrible year but can make difference
By Sam Borden / SNY.tv
A.J. Burnett still has three seasons remaining (at $16.5 million a year) on a five-year contract. (AP)

A.J. Burnett is not naïve, not foolish enough to think that he can do anything to completely make up for the regular season he just finished. Going 10-15 and pitching the way Burnett did this year and cashing checks on a $82.5 million contract isn't something that a couple of October games can wipe away. It just isn't.

What this American League Championship Series opportunity can be for Burnett, though, is a start. A beginning. The Yankees sat him down during the first round, were prepared to go with only three starters against the Twins. Now they need a fourth and, mostly because there's nobody else, they turn to Burnett.

On Wednesday, he pitches a simulated game at Yankee Stadium. Next week, presumably on Tuesday in Game 4, he pitches in the ALCS against the Rangers.

"I've been looking forward to it, hoping they'd give me a shot, and they did," Burnett told reporters on Tuesday. "Now it's my job to get ready for it."

There are plenty of people who think this isn't a good idea. You can't blame them. Burnett has been so erratic, so shaky all year that if there was someone else with any kind of track record, that person would almost surely be a better choice than Burnett. Except there isn't.

There is Javier Vazquez, another big-money guy (who just happens to be on a one-year deal instead of a multi-year) that turned out to be a bust this season. Vazquez traveled with the Yankees in the first round and threw in a simulated game on Tuesday but that figures to be as close as he gets to ever wearing a Yankees uniform again.

There is Ivan Nova, a young kid, no experience, with particularly lively stuff but he, too, looked rocky during the final weeks of the season. The Yankees don't know what they'd be getting from Nova and they've got nothing to go on with regard to how he'd handle the stresses of a playoff game. The closest Nova has come is pitching against the Red Sox in the final series of the regular season and his performance then (2 1/3 innings, four hits, three walks) didn't exactly inspire confidence.

Dustin Moseley? He's the long man. Sergio Mitre? Not stretched out. Chad Gaudin? Same deal.

It is Burnett. It has to be.

"We hope he pitches well for us," general manager Brian Cashman said. "We believe in him every time he takes the mound, but he has struggled, no question about it, here in the second half. But that was then. This is now. He's a very competitive person. We believe that competitive nature will allow him to step up and do a great job for us."

You can second-guess all you want about whether the Yankees should even be in this position, whether they should have given him big money and big years only a few days after they ponied up to land Sabathia. Two aces, they said they were getting, and at this point that's a long way from being true.

Sabathia has delivered on his money; Burnett hasn't. He was good last year, made a big start in the World Series against the Phillies, had some excellent moments that made you think this was going to be the right spot for him to succeed. He also added the whole pie-in-the-face thing, which turned into a significant part of the team's chemistry. That doesn't get erased.

But this year wasn't good, wasn't even close to good, and Burnett has to answer for that. Everyone says they believe in his stuff, in his arm, in his ability, but there are three more years left on that contract and not a lot of reason for hope about what might lie ahead.

"This is October and whatever happens in the future is what counts," Burnett told reporters on Tuesday. "To be honest with you, I really don't want to look back. I put that behind me the best I can and I've been positive here every day waiting to get my shot. I'm ready to help."

It was the right thing to say, all he really can say right now. Burnett has to go forward. Has to seize this chance the Yankees have given him at a new beginning.

Sam Borden is an award-winning columnist for LoHud.com and The Journal News and is a contributor to SNY.tv.
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