The Yankees needed their starter to give them at least a fighting chance against the Boston Red Sox. First place in the American League East was at stake, but there was even more in play. The Yankees had a bullpen that had been used up the night before and was patched up now. And they were 1-6 against the Red Sox this season, an intolerable situation for the Bronx Bombers.
On Wednesday night, the Yankees didn't get the performance they needed from Burnett, and thus they got an 11-6 loss and a trip to second place in the AL East. The problem is that an inadequate outing by Burnett against Boston is by now a completely expected development.
Burnett has not beaten the Red Sox while wearing a Yankees uniform. In fact, the Red Sox have beaten on him with relentless regularity. In eight starts with the Yankees against Boston, Burnett has an 0-4 record and an 8.86 ERA. For the Yankees, this has been a most discouraging development -- and surprising, too, in light of the fact that Burnett had success against the Red Sox when he was pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Burnett was not at all pleased when a question was asked that included a reference to his previous success against Boston.
"I'm not in Toronto anymore," Burnett said. "I'm tired of hearing that."
Burnett chalked up his problems on Wednesday to "missed locations," which was not a disputable point. "When you don't make pitches, they're going to hit you," Burnett said, which was also a reasonable description of the two-step process that occurs when he faces the Red Sox.
On Wednesday night, Burnett vs. Boston was just a little worse than usual, from the Yankees' standpoint. Burnett gave up eight runs (seven earned) in 5 2/3 innings.
This raised the inevitable question: For $82.5 million, couldn't you fairly expect an occasional victory over your biggest rival and major divisional opponent? Yes, that would seem like a modest return on that sort of investment.
An 8.86 ERA against Boston was certainly not what the Yankees had in mind when they gave Burnett a five-year deal worth $82.5 million. With these long-term pitching contracts, so often the pitcher you hope for is not exactly the pitcher you get. Or in this case, A.J. Burnett pitching against the Red Sox, the pitcher you hope for is not remotely the pitcher you get.
It is true that Burnett was helpful in the Yankees' 2009 run to a World Series championship. And it is true that so far in 2011 Burnett has, for the most part, bounced back from a truly substandard 2010 season. But can a Yankees pitcher be termed successful when he routinely gets battered by the Red Sox? Come on.
Burnett gave up three runs in the first, an unearned run in the second and three more earned runs in the fourth.
"It always comes down to command, and tonight, he just didn't have command of his pitches early on," Yankee manager Joe Girardi said of Burnett.
There should be widespread agreement on this point. As events unfolded on Wednesday night, it became clear that even a merely adequate starting performance could have helped the Yankees win.
On the other side of the argument, ageless knuckleballer Tim Wakefield got swings and misses early and gave his team an outing that was not at all impressive statistically, but it did have the virtue of being better than Burnett's work.
The Yankees aren't usually completely baffled by Wakefield, and they weren't here, either, after the fourth inning. To the Yankees' credit, they came back from a 7-0 deficit to make a game of it for a time. Their rally had the unfortunate side effect of reminding everybody how they could have won if their starter hadn't given up seven earned runs without completing six innings.
But the Red Sox pushed their record to 7-1 against the Yankees this season. The 2009 example must still be used as a cautionary note: That season, the Yankees lost their first eight meetings with the Red Sox, then went 9-1 against Boston the rest of the way.
But the current Yankees can't go 9-1 against the Red Sox with A.J. Burnett going 0-2 against Boston during those 10 games. The math won't stretch that far. After Thursday night, the Yankees and Red Sox won't see each other until early August. The Yankees must hope that by that point, Burnett will have regained that elusive ability to make pitches against the Red Sox.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.