Five Cuts: Burnett's short rope, Lee's unreal postseason savvy

Tuesday October 19th, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO -- 1. Yankees manager Joe Girardi is making the right call putting the ball in the hands of A.J. Burnett in ALCS Game 4. He has no better option that leaves him properly covered for the rest of the series.

No, but this is the real thorny issue for Girardi: when to take the ball out of his hands.

Burnett hasn't pitched in 17 days, hasn't won a game in 49 days and hasn't beaten a winning team in 147 days. New York is 2-10 in games Burnett has pitched since August.

Game 4 isn't a must-win for the Yankees, who trail the Rangers 2-1 in the series, but it's darn close. So the pressure is on Girardi as to how much rope he gives a notoriously scattershot pitcher with rust and who on his good days struggles early.

Burnett has walked or hit 35 batters in his past 65 1/3 innings. How sharp can he be with this much rest? And can Girardi afford to let him work through early problems? This season in four starts with six or more days of rest, Burnett was 0-2 with a 9.25 ERA.

If Burnett walks a couple batters in the first inning, will Girardi hook him? (Burnett's first-inning ERA this year, by the way, is 7.09.) Maybe Dustin Moseley should just warm up next to Burnett before the game.

It's a tricky game for Girardi. Burnett has the stuff, when he is right, to keep the Yankees in the game. But there is no way after the way Burnett threw the ball the previous two months that Girardi can allow Game 4 to get away with Burnett on the mound.

I don't know if Cliff Lee, 32, is the left-handed Roy Halladay, 33, or Halladay is the right-handed Lee, but they are eerily similar in the way they carve up hitters. Both pitchers needed to go back to the minor leagues to restart their careers, both were pitching in the Florida State League in 2001, both pitchers rarely leave the top of the mound between pitches or batters, both pitchers can make the ball sink and run in two different directions -- away or toward a batter -- and both of them have mastered the cutter.

The cut fastball saved Lee. He has thrown it with increasing frequency ever since he went to the minors in 2007, the year he was left off the Indians' postseason roster. But the cutter Lee featured last night was ridiculously good.

Lee threw 40 cutters -- just about 33 percent of his total pitches, a stunningly high number. He faced 27 batters, and only three of them managed to lift a pitch into the air. The man put on an absolute clinic against the highest scoring team in baseball in the Yankees' own ballpark.

And so that is why the pressure on New York has begun early in the series. The task is not just to win tonight to even the series. It is to win the next three games, because they want no part of Lee in Game 7.

One more note about the amazing Clifton Phifer Lee: In just eight career postseason starts, he has tied the all-time postseason record for games with 10 strikeouts or more. Here are the pitchers with the most 10K games, and the percentage of their total postseason starts those games represent:

The Yankees ought to tell Brett Gardner he will be fined $1,000 every time he slides headfirst into first base. It's still the worst play in baseball from a risk/reward standpoint, and Gardner proved it twice.

In Game 1 Gardner was credited for his "hustle" -- as if sliding headfirst requires more effort than running hard through the bag. Gardner proved it was a dumb play when pitcher C.J. Wilson, while covering the bag, stepped on his hand. Gardner was lucky to escape injury.

So what does Gardner do in Game 3? He slides headfirst again, only this time, out of apparent fear of getting stepped on again, he cost himself a base hit by alligator-arming it at the bag.

Here's one subtle sign of encouragement for the Phillies from Game 2: Ryan Howard did not chase breaking balls out of the strike zone from left-hander Jonathan Sanchez. Indeed, Howard set up the bases-loaded walk by Jimmy Rollins by taking a walk himself. All four balls in that at-bat were sliders. He later whacked a breaking ball for an opposite-field double.

If Howard is going to force lefties to try to get him out in the strike zone, and if manager Charlie Manuel sticks with a right-handed bat between Chase Utley and Howard, the Phillies will be much more difficult to deal with in the late innings, especially with Javier Lopez lurking in the bullpen for San Francisco.

In the World Series last year, Manuel stuck with Utley and Howard in the 3-4 spots, and he made a star out of Damaso Marte by doing it. The Yankees left-handed reliever faced Utley and Howard six times and retired them every time.

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