AJ Burnett needs to win tonight, plain and simple. Of course, competitively speaking, professional baseball players want to win every time they compete, that's the nature of being an athlete.
This is different though, it is an absolute MUST win situation for Burnett as well as for his team. After looking highly vulnerable in several aspects of the game, over the last three series, the Yankees have two weeks of regular season baseball remaining to right their ship.
Realistically, their fortunes could have been different, as every game in the Tampa series was a one-run ballgames, and the games in Texas were all close as well. A minor variance here or there, and the Yankees could have won a few more than the one game they squeaked out in extra innings in Tampa.
Conversely however, over their last nine games, the two that they won were on Swisher's walk-off in the bottom of the ninth at the stadium against Baltimore, and Posada's tenth inning blast in Tampa, both one-run games as well. If either of those games had gone in a slightly different different direction, the Yankees could very well be staring at a nine-game losing streak.
Hypothetical situations aside, reality states that the Yankees have won only two of their previous ten games, turning a two-and-a-half game lead in the AL East into a half game deficit in little over a week. Of course, the Yankees are still likely poised to return to the post-season, but home-field advantage could be critical, and no one feels confident limping into the playoffs.
It's not fair to place the entire burden of the team's situation solely on Aj Burnett's shoulders, but as the number two starter in the Yankee rotation, his status dictates that he should be capable of handling some pressure, and to do so with aplomb. I hate to bring up the money aspect as well, but a team doesn't pay a pitcher $16.5 million a year to be three games under .500 with an ERA in excess of 5.00, and to continually wilt under pressure. At some point, the investment must pay dividends, or it can be viewed as an abject failure.
Normally, a series against the lowly Orioles would be precisely what the Yankees needed to cure their collective ills. But these aren't the same Orioles that we've grown accustomed to beating up on over the last several years. Under Buck Showalter, they have discovered a new lease on life, rejuvenated and gaining confidence daily.
Beginning 2010 with two miserable stretches under two different managers, the Orioles are now 26-15 under Showalter, who seems to have lit a fire under his squad and instilled a winning mentality that they have sorely lacked for a decade or more. After winning two-of-three on the Bronx last week, the new-look O's showed that they are not fearful of the 2010 Yankees.
This is still the Yankees we're talking about though, and one could rightly assume that after a miserable stretch over their last ten games, they might be hungry for retribution and due for their own hot streak.
Despite their recent triumph at Yankee Stadium, the Orioles still stand at 4-11 against the Yankees in 2010, being outscored by 31 runs in those games. Fortunately for the Yankees, the pitching match-ups seems to favor them as well, at least on paper.
Although Burnett is a complete wild-card, never knowing what to expect from his erratic performances, the Yankee offense should at least provide him some run support tonight.
Facing the Yankees in tonight's game, is Kevin Millwood, a pitcher whom the Yankees have feasted upon many times throughout the years. In three games against the Yankees this year, Millwood is 0-2 with a 7.56 ERA in 16 2/3 innings. He has allowed a .347 batting average against Yankee hitters, as well as a 1.024 OPS, and they have clubbed five home-runs off him. The Yankee lineup may be seeing exactly what they've been craving after a week against tough Texas and Tampa Bay rotations.
Burnett's career performances against Baltimore have been mediocre, but so far in 2010, they have been one of the few teams that he has found success against. In four starts, he has gone 2-2, with a 2.48 ERA and a 1.069 WHIP. In 29 innings, he has compiled a 22/8 strikeout to walk ratio, and has only allowed one home-run.
At Camden Yards, he has fared even better in 2010. In two starts, he has a 1-1 record, with a 2.45 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP. The Orioles have only managed to hit .204 against him in their home park, and have a collective OPS of .588 against him.
All the numbers seem to favor A.J. Burnett is his match-up against Kevin Millwood and the Orioles tonight at Camden Yards, but of course, the games are never played on paper. He will have to move beyond the statistics and match-ups to create his own success on the mound at Camden Yards, finding an ability to focus and harness the brilliant, yet inconsistent talent that he possesses.
Tonight, A.J. must find it within himself to return the confidence that the Yankees had in him last year, and demonstrate why they should pitch him in October once again, rather than leaving him in the bullpen to watch much of the action alongside Javier Vazquez. At the moment, there is a very real possibility that both of those veteran pitchers could find themselves on the bench in the playoffs, in favor of a rookie with an entire five major league starts on his resume. No one in the Bronx wants to count on Ivan Nova as the number four starter during the post-season, but A.J. Burnett must seize the opportunity to earn that responsibility, and he must start that process tonight.