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09/20/08 12:56 AM ET

Jays start strong then falter vs. Sox

After Burnett's solid outing, questions arise in Toronto

TORONTO -- Arguably the biggest question facing the Blue Jays this offseason will be whether or not A.J. Burnett decides to remain with the team. It is an issue that has become quite the topic of discussion as the 2008 campaign winds down.

Burnett, who has the ability to opt out of his contract and become a free agent at the end of this season, pitched well on Friday night, yet received a no-decision in Toronto's 4-3 loss to the Red Sox at Rogers Centre.

Before the game, Burnett's importance to the Jays was intensified when the club learned that starter Shaun Marcum is in need of Tommy John surgery on his right arm and will be sidelined until the 2010 season.

"It's not good for anybody," Burnett said. "I've been through it, so I'll give him as much insight as I can about how it's important to come back strong. But it's a tough break for him. We're all going to miss him as long as he's out, but he'll work hard and get his rehab done and come back strong."

Marcum now joins starter Dustin McGowan, who had right shoulder surgery in July and will likely not return until at least May of next year. Should Burnett leave the team, it would assure that Toronto (82-72) would be without three of its '08 starters on Opening Day of next season.

Perhaps realizing the importance of the situation, Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi has said that the club would be willing to extend Burnett's contract in an effort to convince him to stay in Toronto. The GM did note however, that the franchise wouldn't be drawn into a bidding war for his services.

When questioned following his start on Friday, Burnett was still non-committal about the issue, but he did acknowledge that Ricciardi's intentions could influence his decision.

"When I start thinking about it, it might," Burnett said. "I still got another start for the season to end. My plans, my goals are to finish out a healthy season. And then we'll go from there."

Is it good news, though, that the Jays are willing to renegotiate?

"Absolutely," replied Burnett, "but like I said, I'm not worried about any of that. I've got another start and when all that is said and done, then we'll start worrying about that."

Should Burnett decide to leave the two years and $24 million left on his contract, he would likely be able to command an even larger paycheck, given his strong season.

A pitcher who has dealt with various injuries over his career, Burnett has been fully healthy this year as his numbers can attest. The right-hander has amassed career highs in most major pitching categories, including wins (18), innings pitched (213 1/3) and strikeouts (220).

What can also make Burnett particularly enticing to possible free-agent suitors is that he has seemed to get better as the season has rolled on.

"I've got another start and when all that is said and done, then we'll start worrying about that."
-- A.J. Burnett, on the possibility of becoming a free agent this offseason

The 31-year-old is 8-1 with a 3.06 ERA over his past 12 starts. During that span, he has allowed just 70 hits over 79 1/3 innings, while striking out 88 batters.

Should those impressive numbers leave the Blue Jays pitching staff, manager Cito Gaston would undoubtedly have a hard time replacing them.

"It still has to depend on A.J," Gaston said. "What he wants to do. Certainly it's not us, it's him. He's always been important, but like I said, it's his call. It's not my call, it's his call.

"He's important if he stays, but if he goes, there's not much we could do about that."

In Friday's contest, Burnett needed a season-high 121 pitches to get through his seven innings. He was given an early lead by the Toronto offense, which produced two runs in the second inning on a trio of consecutive doubles from Scott Rolen, Gregg Zaun and Travis Snider.

In the fifth inning though, Boston (90-62) was able to storm back with three runs against Burnett, partially due to an umpire's ruling, which the Jays believed to be incorrect.

With two outs and runners on first and third base, Burnett squared off against Boston slugger Kevin Youkilis. On a 2-2 pitch, Burnett's offering forced the hitter to check his swing. When the Jays appealed the call, first-base umpire Jim Reynolds ruled that Youkilis' bat did not in fact cross the plate and that the inning was to continue.

Youkilis lined the next pitch into center field for an RBI single and was followed by Sean Casey, whose double drove in two more runs to push Boston's lead to 3-2.

Gaston was clearly unhappy with the call.

"It is hard," said the manager. "There's nothing you can do about it. It's not going to change it. Definitely it looked like he missed it."

The Jays were able to tie the game in the bottom of the fifth on Marco Scutaro's double to right-center field, but surrendered the lead yet again in the eighth inning, this time for good.

In the eighth inning left-hander Brian Tallet entered the game in relief of Burnett. Tallet subsequently allowed a single and a walk, then gave way to right-hander Shawn Camp, who promptly issued a free pass to Red Sox shortstop Jed Lowrie, loading the bases. Jason Varitek proceeded to drive in the go-ahead run with his fielder's-choice grounder.

"We walked some guys late in the ballgame, which you can't do, because that's nothing but trouble and it ends up being the winning run," Gaston said. "We didn't get the job done coming out of the bullpen tonight."

When Burnett takes the mound next Thursday against the Yankees, he could possibly be making his final appearance in a Blue Jays uniform. The starter ruled out the possibility of going on three day's rest to pitch the last game of the season, in an attempt to win 20 games this year.

"I'll settle for 19," he said. "I'm not going to go on three day's rest for that. I'm just going to go on my next start. We've got the Yankees coming up, so I'll prepare for that."

David Singh is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.