Texas Rangers ace Cliff Lee hasn’t made many mistakes on the pitcher’s mound this postseason, allowing just two runs in 16 innings. He has, however, repeatedly goofed in postgame interviews, reminding the world -- and one confidence-challenged opponent in particular -- that playoff pressure exists only if you let it.
To Lee, you see, pitching in October is no different than pitching in, say, April. Pitcher gets the ball. Pitcher throws the ball. It’s just another game. Lee brings to the mound a carefree attitude and decades of muscle memory. Strike. Strike. Strike. Easy as that.
No pitcher needs a postseason how-to refresher more than Yankees enigma A.J. Burnett, who, this season’s struggles aside, is slated to start Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the Rangers Oct. 19 at the even bigger ballpark in the Bronx. The best-of-seven series begins tonight in Texas.
“Believe me,” Burnett said earlier this week, speaking about his 10-15 record and 5.26 earned run average, “as angry and as aggravating as it is to watch me, it’s even more so to be me. I live with all those bad outings every day.”
Baseball folks like to say that closers need short memories. Starting pitchers do, too. Dwelling means doom. You can think too much. Burnett, much to his detriment, is a thinker. An overthinker, really.
There are few dissenters when the chit-chat around the batting cage turns to Burnett’s bonafides. The guy has great stuff, as pitching coaches like to say, which is why the Yankees prior to last season gave the 33-year-old a five-year contract worth more than $82 million.
This season, however, his paycheck and his production have been incongruous. Something has been lost. The problem lies with Burnett’s mind, not his mechanics. It’s frustrating for fans, teammates and executives. It’s especially troublesome for pitching coach Dave Eiland, who sees flashes of a dominant pitcher. A glimpse here and there.
“You can still see there’s a twinkle in his eye,” Eiland said. “He can summon that.”
Yes, he can, even on the grandest stage.
The best of Burnett was on display in Game 2 of last year’s World Series, when he threw first-pitch strikes to the first 11 batters. Strike one is the most important pitch in baseball.
Those in attendance that night in Yankee Stadium witnessed an aggressive, carefree Burnett. He looked a lot like Lee, allowing a potent Philadelphia Phillies lineup just one run on four hits over seven innings. He struck out nine and walked two.
Burnett called it the biggest game he’d ever thrown. The Yankees needed a win to even the series. Burnett delivered it, cementing, at long last, his stature as a big-game pitcher. When it comes to pitchers, even those with great stuff, you just don’t know.
That version of Burnett was unlike anything the Yankees and their fans had seen. He was aggressive. He was confident. He was having fun out there.
When it was over, Burnett was asked to explain not only his dominance, but his demeanor.
Turns out that Burnett was in the clubhouse after Game 1, watching the post-game coverage on television. Filling the screen was a matter-of-fact Lee, spilling the secrets of his success. At the big-league level, talent is a given. Lee talked incessantly about temperament and self-confidence. Didn’t matter that he was pitching in the World Series. It was, to him, just another game. No big deal.
By his own admission something clicked in Burnett, who, by the way, grew up only a few miles from Lee in Arkansas. They also share the same agent, Darek Braunecker.
Months ago, angling to find his Fall Classic form, Burnett watched his World Series Game 2 performance. He didn’t nibble. He just threw.
Not much changed, though.
So the Yankees dropped Burnett from the starting rotation against the Twins in the best-of-five division series, which New York won in three games.
Burnett wasn’t needed then. He’s needed now.
Imagine the pressure, not to mention angst, if the Yankees head into Allan James Burnett’s game trailing in the series.
“If his mind is right,” said Eiland, the pitching coach, “his body will follow.”
Burnett said there’s a good chance he’d watch last year’s Game 2 again. Here’s a better idea. The Yankees ought to make sure that Burnett is in the clubhouse, television on, volume up, after Game 3, which Lee will start (and maybe even finish) for the Rangers. One last reminder to relax, have fun and throw.
Lee will probably hurt the Yankees with his arm. And, as history shows, he just might help them with his mouth.
(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)