Burnett dominates Yanks on short rest
Blue Jays right-hander ends season's first half with 10 victories
TORONTO -- Blue Jays fans have had a love-hate relationship with A.J. Burnett since the club brought the right-hander to Toronto with a lucrative contract three winters ago. Standing ovations have been as customary as choruses of boos.
On Sunday afternoon, Burnett -- never shy to speak his mind or display his frustration -- convinced the home crowd at Rogers Centre to hide any hard feelings with a dominating showing that the Jays rode to a 4-1 victory over the American League East-rival Yankees. The fans roared with each pitch and rose to their feet when Burnett exited the game.
Walking back to Toronto's dugout with one out in the ninth inning, Burnett doffed his cap to acknowledge the warm response to his effort. In a season in which Burnett has received harsh criticism from the home faithful and had his name surface in trade rumors, the praise didn't go unnoticed.
"It was good, man," Burnett said. "Even the reception going out there, I heard a lot of cheers. I'm glad that they gave me that ovation. It forces me to tip my hat when I get that."
On June 7, following a dismal evening on the hill, Burnett sarcastically lifted his hat to counter the wave of boos that shadowed him back to the bench. His latest reaction was more genuine and one that the fans certainly won't be talking about on radio call-in shows.
Instead, the topic might turn to how Burnett's gem against the Yankees sent the Jays (47-48) into the All-Star break on a high note after a first half filled with lows. The win was the fifth in the past six games for Toronto, which has now captured four consecutive series victories at home.
There's also the chance that Burnett's wave could be a good-bye of sorts, considering he's undoubtedly being watched by contending clubs as the July 31 Trade Deadline approaches. Even Burnett wouldn't deny that he'd thought about the fact that this latest trip to the mound could have been one of his last with Toronto.
"Maybe a little," Burnett said. "But let's just say I'm glad I ended the first half on a good note. It's a big positive for me and this team."
Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston asked Burnett if he'd be willing to start the finale of the three-game set against the Yankees, even though the starter logged 112 pitches on Wednesday. Despite the abbreviated rest, Burnett obliged and went on to simply baffle New York (50-45).
"He didn't make too many mistakes," Blue Jays catcher Rod Barajas said. "You couldn't ask for more on three days' rest for him to go out there and pitch the way he did. It was huge for the team."
With an economic approach, Burnett used his overpowering fastball and looping curve to blank the Yankees for the first eight innings, needing just 89 pitches to that point. New York didn't solve the right-hander until the ninth inning, when Jason Giambi lofted Burnett's 95th pitch of the game deep to left for a solo homer.
By that time, the Blue Jays had already built a 4-0 advantage behind a second-inning outburst against Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte (10-7). Toronto's Marco Scutaro capped off the four-run surge by drilling a 1-2 offering from Pettitte to left for a three-run shot.
With that cushion, Burnett cruised, recording eight strikeouts to up his AL-leading total to 126. His biggest of the afternoon came with two runners on and two outs in the sixth inning: a strikeout to Jorge Posada that ended the inning, causing the crowd to erupt with cheers as Burnett violently pumped his fist.
"I made my pitch, and it was just exciting," said Burnett, unable to hold back the slightest grin. "The fans roar when you strike him out, so it's nothing against him. I was just pretty pumped up that we got out of it."
Two batters after Giambi's blast in the ninth, Gaston strolled slowly to the mound, turning to closer B.J. Ryan to finish off the Yankees -- a task the lefty completed for his 18th save of the year. Burnett, who isn't known for low pitch counts, ended with 98. He's thrown fewer pitches in just three starts this year, and none lasted more than six innings.
"The thing with A.J. sometimes," Gaston said, "and all of you see it, is he doesn't really finish a ballgame or get through a ballgame with less than 115 or 120 or 125 pitches. Today, he was really different from that."
It certainly helped that Burnett walked only one, following a stretch during which he issued at least three free passes in seven of eight starts. Through eight innings, Burnett surrendered only four hits -- two on infield singles -- and he scattered six hits in the win.
When it was all said and done, Burnett finished the first half with a 10-8 record. That's an identical mark to the ones he posted overall in each of the past two seasons under the five-year, $55 million contract he signed with the Blue Jays prior to the 2006 campaign.
A big issue for Burnett has been injuries -- both in his time with the Jays and throughout his career. He's been devoid of arm issues so far this season, which has helped Toronto's rotation continue to be one of the game's elite groups.
"I feel great," said Burnett, who landed on the disabled list four times over the past two years due to various arm problems. "That's always been the question mark on me, is my health. I feel great going into the second half."
That's great news for the Blue Jays -- if they decide to keep Burnett in the fold, that is. He has the ability to opt out of his contract at the end of this year, fueling the recent trade rumors that have tapped the Phillies and Dodgers as possible suitors.
As much as the Jays and their fans enjoyed Burnett's win over the Yankees, any scouts on hand were probably thrilled as well.
"I try to put on a show for everybody, whether that's scouts or fans or my own teammates," Burnett said. "But like I've said before, I wear a Blue Jay on my chest and on my hat until I'm told otherwise."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.