Hideki Matsui was the MVP of the 2009 World Series, and it was well deserved, but no individual performance mattered more than A.J. Burnett’s start in Game 2.
The Yankees had lost the series opener at home, and they needed a Game 2 win to avoid going into Philadelphia, down two games to none, needing to win two of three on the road just to stay alive. They were about to face Cole Hamels in Game 3. There was another Cliff Lee start looming. The series was tilting the wrong direction.
Burnett pitched seven innings of one-run ball. He went toe-to-toe with Pedro Martinez, fending off the Phillies lineup until the Yankees could finally get something going. It was a turning point of the series. It was Burnett’s finest hour in pinstripes.
No matter what came before or after, Burnett earned his World Series ring that night. Whether he earned his $82.5 million is debatable at best, but Burnett was terrific on a night the Yankees couldn’t settle for anything less.
Things have changed, of course, and the Yankees have decided it’s time to settle.
There’s nothing good about paying a pitcher $20 million to pitch for someone else, but Burnett had lost all value to the Yankees. He followed that one big postseason start with more bad days than good, and the Yankees had to move on. Their offseason additions provided plenty of rotation alternatives, and Burnett became more valuable as a salary dump than as a starting pitcher.
One good moment won’t define Burnett’s time in pinstripes. His Game 5 start in that very same World Series was a two-inning debacle, and his solid division series start last year came at the end of a second straight disappointing regular season. He made 98 starts for the Yankees and carried a 4.79 ERA. He twice led the league in wild pitches and once led in hit batters. He was often a mess, which masked the fact he was occasionally pretty good. His first two months were pretty good in each of the past two seasons, but his performance inevitably dissolved into the frustration of a lost cause.
What went wrong, you ask? It honestly felt like no one could quite figure it out. Maybe it was age and a fading fastball. Maybe it was a series of mechanical inconsistencies. Maybe it was a spiraling lack of confidence.
For whatever it’s worth, I believe Burnett is and was a hard worker. I believe he always showed up in shape, ready to pitch. I believe he was a standup guy with the media — I told people several times, nobody rips A.J. Burnett quite as well as A.J. Burnett – and although he was always optimistic about what came next, he was also disappointed after every one of those missed opportunities. And there were a lot of them.
Burnett won’t be remembered fondly in New York, and that’s fair. He signed a massive contract and didn’t live up to it, and players rarely receive a hero’s sendoff when that happens. So this is how it ends, with Burnett sent away for pennies on the dollar, a strange conclusion to a saga that could have ended no other way.
Associated Press photo