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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Pettitte, Burnett main bump in Yanks' road to glory


NEW YORK -- You feel a little silly talking about what's wrong with the Yankees.

They do, after all, have the best record in baseball.

"To hear people talking, you'd think we were 20 games out," pitching coach Dave Eiland said Wednesday.

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They're not 20 games out. They could coast to the finish line and still make it to the playoffs, and they're good enough to be a favorite to win in October -- and November.

But you sure would feel a lot better about their chances if you had any idea what to expect from Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett.

As you probably remember, the Yankees ran through the 2009 postseason with just three starting pitchers -- Pettitte, Burnett and CC Sabathia. The Yankees would much prefer next month to be relying again on Pettitte, Burnett and Sabathia, even if this year's playoff schedule forces them to also use a fourth starter.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Pettitte hadn't thrown a pitch that mattered in 6½ weeks. Burnett hadn't won a game in exactly five weeks. Meanwhile, Phil Hughes (5.03 ERA since the All-Star break) was showing serious signs of tiring.

For all the protestations of Eiland ("I'm fine") and manager Joe Girardi ("I'm fine"), the rotation is becoming something of a concern.

Not an "uh oh, they're in trouble" concern. But at least a "they'd better get that figured out before the playoffs start" concern.

It's why Eiland and Pettitte sounded so happy when Pettitte's Wednesday afternoon bullpen session went well. It's why Girardi and Burnett sounded somewhat relieved when Burnett was at least decent in beating the A's 4-3 Wednesday night.

"It was a great day, as far as I was concerned," said Pettitte, whose problem was a left groin strain.

The Yankees have no clue which A.J. Burnett will take the mound on any given night. (Getty Images)  
The Yankees have no clue which A.J. Burnett will take the mound on any given night. (Getty Images)  
"If I'm going to pitch well, now's the time to do it," said Burnett, whose problem is his career-long inconsistency.

There's a real chance that in the five weeks before the playoffs begin, Pettitte will prove he's completely healthy and Burnett will prove that he's at least as good as he was going into last year's postseason.

If so, maybe we'll be saying that Pettitte actually benefitted from his midseason break, keeping his 38-year-old arm fresher for October. And maybe we'll say that while Burnett is as maddening as ever, he's also just as capable of doing what he did last October (pitching the Yankees to Game 2 wins in all three series -- and then pitching poorly in Game 5 against both the Angels and Phillies).

For all the concerns about Burnett's winless August (and his 7.80 ERA), he had a five-start stretch from Aug. 22 to Sept. 12 last year in which he was basically just as bad, with a 7.67 ERA.

It's what he is. It's why there will always be times when his five-year, $82 million contract will look like a disaster in the making (he still has three years left at $16.5 million a year), but also why there will always be games when you think he might pitch a no-hitter.

He can be great or awful, and it barely seems to matter whether he's facing a great lineup like the Rangers' (seven shutout innings in April) or a lousy lineup like the Mariners' (six runs on 12 hits a couple weeks back).

You can tell him how good he is and how he just needs to believe in himself (as Eiland does repeatedly). You can threaten him with possible removal from the rotation (as Girardi seemed to do last week in Chicago).

Burnett said Wednesday night that Girardi's veiled threat (he said he would "reevaluate") didn't have any effect.

He could well be telling the truth there, because it's nothing new for Burnett to follow a couple of truly lousy starts with one decent one. Actually, it's not unusual for Burnett to follow lousy starts with one great one, and Wednesday's (six innings, three runs against a weak A's lineup) was hardly great.

For the Yankees, it was good enough for another win, their fifth in a row, 83rd of the season and 14th in the last 21 games. Then again, for the Yankees, Dustin Moseley's lousy start Monday (4 1/3 innings, 4 runs) was good for another win, and so was Hughes' blah start Tuesday (five innings, 98 pitches).

They roll along with the best record in baseball, and while they say that their division race with the Rays is important to them, what's really important is for this team to be set up to win in October.

Most likely, that means they need the rotation to be better than it has been (a 4.91 ERA since the All-Star break, compared to 3.68 before the break). Most likely, it means they need Pettitte to feel healthy and for Burnett to feel at least semi-confident.

You can understand why Wednesday mattered so much to them.

"It really does make me feel better that A.J. got a win," Girardi said.

You can also understand why the concerns are still there. Pettitte is expected to throw a simulated game on Saturday, but at best he's a week and a half from returning to the rotation. Burnett will stay in the rotation for sure now, but he's another bad outing from bringing up more of the same questions.

"It's a matter of me repeating it the next time out," Burnett said.

It's a matter of how comfortable the Yankees are going to feel about their starters when it really starts to count, next month.

"I'm fine with it," Girardi said Wednesday.

With the best record in baseball, maybe he should feel fine. With questions remaining about Pettitte and Burnett, maybe he should be the one asking the questions.


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