Friday October 9th, 2009

NEW YORK -- A.J. Burnett is the key to the Yankees' postseason.

In New York's last three postseason appearances -- all losses in the Division Series, in 2005, '06 and '07 -- its starters' ERAs got progressively worse, from 4.81 to 6.14 to a staggering 9.42. No wonder the Yankees spent $243.5 million this offseason on free agents CC Sabathia and Burnett.

Sabathia has been more consistent all year and turned in a strong, walk-free, 6 2/3-inning win in Game 1. Burnett, meanwhile, has been a bit more, shall we say, combustible. He has allowed five runs or more in nearly a quarter of his starts (eight of 33) and after getting the nod over Andy Pettitte to start Friday evening's Game 2 against the Twins -- in what will be his postseason debut -- Burnett is positioned to start twice in each series New York plays. The Yankees can't afford another such clunker, the kind they've grown accustomed to since 2005.

The 32-year-old Burnett, who overall had a fine season at 13-9 with a 4.09 ERA, suffered through a wretched August. During that month, in which he went 0-4 over six starts with a 6.03 ERA, his frustration -- particularly with catcher Jorge Posada -- became palpable. The friction seemed to start on Aug. 12, when Burnett threw three wild pitches. Posada blamed them on mixed signals, getting curveballs when expecting fastballs, but Burnett declined to comment about the wild pitches after the game, which can be baseball code for "it's my teammate's fault." In his next start, another cross-up on signs led to a run-scoring balk.

Then in a Saturday matinee in Boston on Aug. 22, the Red Sox shelled Burnett for nine runs in five innings en route to a 14-1 win. It was more than just a bad outing for Burnett. Most tellingly, in his final inning of work, on a 1-2 count to David Ortiz, Posada rose to a tall crouch, calling for a high fastball. But Burnett's pitch stayed below the belt and over the plate, where Ortiz extended his arms and drilled the ball over the Green Monster for a home run, at which Burnett turned away from the plate and mouthed what appeared to be the words, "Why? Why? Why? Why would you throw that pitch?"

After the game Burnett and Posada acknowledged that they disagreed on several pitch calls. Burnett's outburst on the mound -- replayed frequently on Fox's national broadcast -- seemed to be directed toward his catcher. That's undoubtedly why backup Jose Molina caught Burnett in seven of his final eight starts, including his last six, a stretch during which the right-hander was 3-1 with a 2.92 ERA. The last time Posada caught him, Burnett gave up 11 hits and six runs in 5 1/3 innings. On the season, when Posada has caught Burnett, opponents are hitting 49 points higher than with Molina (.270 to .221).

And so the Yankees -- at great expense to their offense and, possibly, team chemistry -- will start Molina behind the plate on Friday and leave Posada on the bench. Posada is batting .285 with a .363 on-base percentage, 22 home runs and 81 RBIs. Molina, on the other hand, is hitting .217, with a paltry .292 OBP, just one home run (which came in April) and 11 RBIs in 52 games. Admittedly Posada hasn't been a postseason star, batting .236 with a .352 OBP and a meager .379 slugging percentage in 96 postseason games, with nine homers and 31 RBIs, but there's no reason to expect Molina can do even that well.

"They've been in a real good rhythm when they've been working together," manager Joe Girardi said of Burnett and Molina. "And we just felt we would keep it that way. The playoff are a lot about pitching, and we just thought since they're in a good rhythm, we're going to keep them working together."

Posada was understandably terse when asked about the subject on Tuesday, saying only, "If A.J. is comfortable with Molina there's not much I can do. I just hope they go out there and win the game. That's all I've got to say."

It's not unprecedented for pitchers to have a personal catcher. Boston's Jason Varitek hasn't caught Tim Wakefield's knuckleball in years, and the Braves used to tote around Eddie Perez, Paul Bako and Henry Blanco so Greg Maddux wouldn't have to throw to Javy Lopez, with whom he was never on the same page.

Against the Twins, whom the Yankees ought to dismiss in three or four games anyway, it may not matter that much, but Girardi, who earlier this summer said that he didn't want his pitchers to have personal catchers, ought to consider letting Posada catch Burnett in later rounds of the postseason. There's no denying that the Yankees are a better team when Posada starts behind the plate.

Burnett certainly seems more comfortable with Molina as his batterymate, but Girardi should not be shy about pinch-hitting Posada if the catcher's spot in the batting order comes up with runners on base, even if it's in the early innings. (Girardi smartly planned ahead by carrying three catchers on the series roster.) Posada's bat, particularly when he's hitting from the left side, is too dangerous not to have in the lineup, especially with new Yankee Stadium's jet stream in right field.

The team's winning percentage in Posada's 88 starts at catcher was .648, more than 60 points higher than in Molina's 41 starts behind the plate (.585). When Posada didn't catch for 24 games in May because of a hamstring injury, Molina replaced him for the first four games -- all losses -- before he went down with a quadriceps strain. Kevin Cash and Francisco Cervelli split the next 20 starts behind the plate, during which the Yankees went 14-6.

After all, Posada has caught Burnett in six home starts. In those games the Yankees are 6-0, with Posada batting .360 (9 for 25) with two homers and seven RBIs. Burnett's only 2-0 with four no-decisions but has an ERA of 3.32, nearly three-quarters of a run below his season rate.

Coolly standing in the first-base dugout during batting practice before Game 1, his newly printed MLB-issued Yankees playoff sweatshirt in stark contrast to the several days of scruff adorning his face, Burnett tried to play peacemaker, insisting that having Molina catch him was "Joe's decision."

"It's making me out to be the bad guy again," Burnett said of perception that he asked for Molina to catch him. "It comes down to Boston, when I said 'Why? Why? Why?' But over my career I've done that a handful of times. If you ask people I've played with, they'll say I'm not a bad guy.

"I even went to Joe in the past and said, 'Hey, give me either one.' "

In addition to the revamped starting pitching, the other marked difference about this year's edition of the Bronx Bombers has been the uncharacteristically relaxed atmosphere around the typically workman-like club. Reserve Eric Hinske, who knows a thing or two about loose clubhouses after playing in Boston in 2006 and '07, named Burnett as one of the handful of Yankees most responsible for keeping everyone relaxed and having fun. Burnett is, of course, the instigator for the New York's whipped-cream-pie-in-the-face tradition for the star of key games.

In fact, at his introductory press conference, Burnett dabbled not just in the usual rhetoric, that joining the Yankee was a "dream come true" and that he's "here to win," but he also made a point of saying that he was confident he'd fit in, saying, "I grew up in this game. You don't point fingers, you take the blame like a man and be accountable."

For the sake of peace in the clubhouse -- and power in the order -- Girardi should remain flexible when making out his lineup card, and Burnett should be true to his word about throwing to either catcher.

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