Thursday, July 9, 2009

Battle Tested

He had no control over his curve. His change wasn't any better. That left A.J. Burnett with just one pitch -- not normally a recipe for success.

But Burnett went in to battle mode. He battled himself, he battled the Twins and he battled the Yankees to a hard-fought win Wednesday.

Despite throwing three wild pitches and walking four, Burnett allowed just two runs in 6-1/3 innings and the Yankees got enough timely hitting to win 4-3 in Minnesota and remain a game behind the Red Sox in the AL East.

It was their 12th win in 14 games, seventh straight on the road and second straight on this six-game trip leading into the All-Star break.

"It was a tough performance by him," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of Burnett. "He seemed to be in trouble in a couple of innings and found ways to get big strikeouts or big outs during the game. Sometimes you're not going to be as sharp as other nights, but when you can hold a team down and do what he did, that's a great performance."

It was clear Burnett wasn't sharp from the start. He allowed a single to Denard Span to lead off the first and sent him to second with his first wild pitch. But Burnett picked Span off second and the Twins couldn't do any damage.

In the second, the offense jumped on Twins starter Anthony Swarzak, a late replacement for Glen Perkins, who was scratched with an illness.

With one out Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano all singled to load the bases. Wile Matsui has been crushing the ball since the end of interleague play, he still can't run well, so when he gets on first, he clogs the bases.

Fortunately, the Yankees were able to get him in as Nick Swisher grounded back to the pitcher to make it 1-0. Then Brett Gardner delivered the big blow, lacing a single to bring in Posada and Cano.

In the two games at the Metro Dome, Gardner has driven in four runs. When that happens, you better win both.

But it wasn't easy in this game.

Burnett's control issues came back to bite him in the third. With two outs, Span singled and stole second. Brandan Harris then walked before Burnett threw two wild pitches to score Span. Joe Mauer then doubled to bring in Harris, but Burnett battled and got Justin Morneau to ground to second to escape the inning.

The Yankees got one back in the fifth as Derek Jeter led off with a double and scored on Alex Rodriguez's single to knock out Swarzak, but that would be it for the Yankees' offense, as the Twins bullpen escaped several jams and stopped the Yankees the rest of the way.

Burnett continued to fight his way through this outing, escaping a bases loaded, two-out jam in the fifth by getting Michael Cuddyer to chase a curve out of the zone for strike three.

He got through the sixth and retired Harris leading off the seventh. His night was done, having allowed at least one baserunner in every inning and surrendering seven hits. Burnett struck out just two and threw only 59 of 100 pitches for strikes.

"That's why the Yankees went out and got that guy," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He's one of those guys that knows how to pitch. He's been doing it a long time and has won a lot of ballgames. He hung in there in some tough situations and made pitches when had to."

Phil Coke then came on and had some control issues of his own, falling behind Mauer 3-and-1 before Mauer crushed the next pitch and deposited it over the wall in left for his 15th homer, cutting the Yankees' lead to 4-3.

Coke rebounded to get Morneau before Phil Hughes finished off the inning and got the first two outs of the eighth. Mariano Rivera then got the final four outs on 11 pitches for his 22nd save of the season.

And though it wasn't as easy as his previous five starts, Burnett (8-4, 3.77 ERA) fought and battled his way to the win.

Runners In Scoring Position
3-for-10 (.300)
206-for-785 (.262)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
140-for-513 (.273)
Vs. Red Sox
11-for-82 (.134)

Up Next
Thursday at Twins, 1:10 p.m., YES
Alfredo Aceves (5-1, 2.03) vs. Francisco Liriano (4-8, 5.49)

After throwing 43 pitches in four innings to get the save Sunday, Aceves gets the start in place of the injured Chien-Ming Wang. Aceves pitch count will likely be 55-60 pitches, putting a premium on thrown strikes. The Yankees are hoping he can get through five innings and the bullpen, which has been stellar since the start of June, can piece together the remaining four innings.

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