Burnett needs U-turn to avoid abyss

NEW YORK -- A.J. Burnett is staring at that Ed Whitson-Hideki Irabu-Kei Igawa abyss. He is at the edge, looking in at a murky future. Will he fall in or make a U-turn?

His manager has threatened to remove the $82.5 million man from his rotation. On Wednesday, Burnett is likely pitching for his next turn, even if Joe Girardi suddenly won't admit it.

For the first-place New York Yankees, a good Wednesday could lead to a great October. Andy Pettitte tests out his groin muscle again before Burnett tries to get right.

On Tuesday, the Yankees were thinking about the future with the Phil Hughes rules in effect. Hughes pitched just five innings, bringing his season total to 149⅓. He has five or six starts left in his regular season and, if his innings limit is 175 -- as Hughes believes it is -- then there are a lot more short outings over the next month.

Tuesday, Hughes struggled with his fastball and said he was "embarrassed" by another five-walk outing.

"It is starting to snowball, so it is something I need to get right," Hughes said.

It didn't matter much who started for the Yankees because they once again tattooed the Oakland A's in the 9-3 win. Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira hit homers as the Yankees rode a three-run first inning to control the game throughout.

With the Tampa Rays losing, the Yankees are alone atop the AL East for the first time since Aug. 22.

So Burnett will take the mound on Wednesday night, trying to preserve that lead and his spot in the rotation.

At this point, Burnett is turning into the anti-CC Sabathia, his 2009 free-agent teammate. Sabathia is the sure thing, while Burnett can't be fully trusted.

This year, in all of the American League, there are four pitchers who have had seven starts in which they have pitched at least five innings and have allowed no earned runs. Burnett is one of the four. That's the good A.J.

But he has also allowed at least six earned runs in nine of his starts, which is the worst in baseball. His ERA in his 12 losses is 10.68. That's the bad A.J.

He is either lights out or he puts out the lights on the Yankees.

On Tuesday, Hughes won his 16th game, but at 24 years old, Hughes is still a question mark as a starter in the playoffs. In last year's postseason, he struggled in relief and has not looked great in his past two outings. He has walked 10 over the past two starts in which he has only pitched a total of 8⅔ innings. In his previous eight starts, he walked a total of nine.

"I just think he's a little bit off and we need to get him back on track," Girardi said.

That brings it back to Burnett. There is nothing he could do over the next month to fully earn trust. There is a lot he can do on Wednesday night that could make him a nothing with the Yankees, at least for this season. An $82.5 million man without a spot in the rotation.

Tuesday, Girardi tried to play down how Burnett must perform to stay in the rotation. He likely didn't want to put Burnett's fragile nerves into more of a frenzy. Girardi acted like Wednesday was not a big start.

"I don't think so," Girardi said when asked if the spotlight is greater for Burnett. "We will watch him to see how he is throwing. Hopefully, he gets on a roll and pitches a really good game. There is not a sense of panic on our part. We are going to let the guy pitch. We need him to pitch."

The last part is so true, because if Girardi and the Yankees decide to not pitch Burnett with three years left on that $82.5 million contract, it means he is swirling toward that Whitson-Irabu-Igawa abyss.

He is not there yet, but Burnett needs to start the U-turn.

Game notes
Derek Jeter (0-for-3 on Tuesday night) has two hits in his past 30 at-bats. His average is down to .266. Jeter hit .239 for the month. It is his worst average for a month since April 2004 when he hit .172. Girardi said he is not worried about Jeter. ... Teixeira hit his 30th homer, becoming the sixth Yankee to hit that many homers in each of his first two years. The others were Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield.

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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