Friday, July 3, 2009

A.J. Fixes All

The way A.J. Burnett has been pitching lately, he doesn't need a whole lot of run support. Just a few runs will do, thank you very much.

They way the Yankees' offense has been going lately, about four runs is all Burnett should expect.

Burnett had his fourth consecutive dominant start, allowing two runs on six hits in seven innings and the offense managed to push across just enough as the Yankees beat the Blue Jays 4-2 at Yankee Stadium Friday, their eighth win in nine games. The Yankees moved two games behind the Red Sox in the AL East.

Burnett has been outstanding since failing to get out of the third inning in a 7-0 loss to the Red Sox on June 9. Over his last four starts, he's 3-1 with a 0.99 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 33 strikeouts. If not for a dropped fly ball by Johnny Damon against the Marlins, he would be undefeated.

"He's throwing a lot of fastballs in and he's aggressive," catcher Francisco Cervelli said. "It's strike one, and that's it. It's simple when you hit 96."

And Friday he was brilliant, walking just two, striking out seven and throwing 68 of 112 pitches for strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of 29 batters and made just one mistake, a belt-high 0-and-2 fastball that Vernon Wells crushed for a homer in the sixth to make the score 3-2.

The thing is Burnett (7-4, 3.83 ERA) needed to be that sharp because while the offense has been producing a decent amount of runs over the last five games, it has been once again become plodding and over-reliant on homers, letting far too many opportunities slip away.

Going 4-1 with some solid pitching over that stretch helps cover up the offense's struggles, but the numbers tell another story. Starting with Sunday's 4-2 victory over the Mets, the Yankees have going 6-for-38 (.158) with runners in scoring position. They went 1-for 6 Friday, the hit a bunt single by Damon to load the bases in the fifth.

The last time the Yankees had an RBI hit with a runner in scoring position was Derek Jeter's two-run single in the eighth inning against the Mariners Tuesday. Still, the Yankees are averaging 4.8 runs a game over the five games on the strength of seven homers.

And Friday's game was a perfect example of the offense's good fortune.

Robinson Cano, still hitting fifth, gave the Yankees the lead with leadoff homer in the second. It was his first RBI in 13 games, dating to June 17. And despite the homer, Cano continues to show he's just not a No. 5 hitter right now.

For the season, Cano is 20-for-96 (.208) with runners in scoring position, and he hasn't gotten a hit in his last 15 at-bats with RISP, including two at-bats Friday.

The Yankees believe Cano is going to one day become a big-time run producer. The problem is that he's isn't that kind of player right now and he's hitting in a big run-producing spot in the lineup.

The numbers show that Cano just isn't ready to handle this role and it's time for Joe Girardi to change his lineup and get Cano out of that spot.

Cano's inability to drive runs came back to bite the Yankees.

After the Jays tied the score in the fourth on Lyle Overbay's leadoff double, a wild pitch and Alexis Rios' RBI single, the Yankees mounted what should have been a game-breaking rally in the fifth.

Brett Gardner and Jeter led off with walks and Damon beat out that drag bunt to load the bases with no outs and the heart of the lineup coming to the plate. The Yankees were in position to knock out Jays starter Brian Tallet and seize control of the game.

Of course they didn't.

Mark Teixeira drew a walk to bring in Gardner, but Alex Rodriguez grounded into a force with Jeter out at home. With Cano batting, a passed ball brought in Damon to make it 3-1 and moved the runners to second and third, but Cano grounded into a fielder's choice with the ball beating Teixeira to the plate, though Teixeira appeared to get his hand in under the tag. Nick Swisher struck out to end the threat.

"That had the makings of a four- or five-run inning," Rodriguez said. "Give (Tallet) him credit, but we didn't quite get the job done."

When this offense is clicking, A-Rod is right, that's a big inning. But it's not clicking right now.

Fortunately, the Yankees had one more big blast left, an opposite-field homer by A-Rod, giving the Yankees a 4-2 lead that Mariano Rivera had little trouble protecting for his 21st save.

Right now the offense isn't hitting on all cylinders, but that's OK. There will be times when the offense slumps, just like there will be times when the starters or bullpen falters. It happens to every team.

But good teams are able to overcome those slides, and Burnett's outing went a long way toward helping the Yankees do just that.

Runners In Scoring Position
1-for-6 (.167)
186-for-725 (.257)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
120-for-453 (.265)
Vs. Red Sox
11-for-82 (.134)

Up Next
Saturday vs. Blue Jays, 1:05 p.m., YES
Roy Halladay (10-2, 2.56) vs. Chien-Ming Wang (1-6, 10.06)

Umm, can you say "mismatch?" If the Yankees win this one, it would have to be considered just short of a miracle.

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