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BILL SHAIKIN ON BASEBALL

Yankees' rule of three doesn't work out

Small pitching rotation, born of necessity, is a gamble they got away with in Game 4 but not this time, as Burnett lasts two innings with short rest.

November 03, 2009|BILL SHAIKIN | ON BASEBALL

PHILADELPHIA — If the New York Yankees bid for John Lackey this winter, we'll know why.

The Yankees ought not to run out of starting pitchers, or anything else, not with their practically infinite resources. But they could not identify four men to whom they would entrust a playoff start, so they demanded extraordinary labor from CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.

They got away with it Sunday, with Sabathia. They did not get brilliance. They got just enough.

They did not get away with it Monday, with Burnett. The World Series was theirs for the taking. They needed six good innings from Burnett, maybe seven.

They got two innings, and not good ones. They were behind before Burnett got an out, and they never caught up.

They will have to get away with it one more time, either with Andy Pettitte on Wednesday or Sabathia on Thursday, or they will become the first team in 24 years to blow a three-games-to-one lead in the World Series.

"I had a chance to do something special," Burnett said. "I failed. I let the team down. I let the city down."

Charlie Manuel, the Phillies' manager, has country bumpkin written all over him, his manner folksy, his English fractured. Yet his resolve is firm. He adamantly refused to start his ace on short rest just because the Yankees were starting their ace on short rest.

Cliff Lee never had thrown on three days' rest, Manuel reasoned, and this was no time to find out how his arm might respond.

Truth is, while Girardi was getting canonized by the New York media for setting up the three-man rotation that would enable Sabathia to start three times, this was not Girardi's first choice.

His first choice was a legitimate fourth starter. All he had was Chad Gaudin, a legitimate fourth starter for the San Diego Padres, a guy who had worked all of one inning over the last 30 days.

So Girardi really had no choice. He knew it. In September, with the Yankees cruising, he sprinkled in extra days of rest for Sabathia, Burnett and Pettitte. In October, in the first two rounds of the playoffs, Bud Selig sprinkled in extra rest for everybody.

This isn't 1991, the last time a team won the World Series with three starters. Jack Morris, Kevin Tapani and Scott Erickson did it, for the Minnesota Twins.

This is 2009, when short rest is an extreme rarity. Burnett hadn't pitched on short rest all year.

In Game 2, Burnett faced 27 batters and threw a first-pitch strike to 23, including the first 11.

In Game 5, he faced 15 batters. Nine reached base -- four on hits, four on walks, one on a hit batter. After his first 13 batters, he had thrown more balls than strikes.

Burnett said he could not throw strike one with any consistency, could not keep his fastball down and could not stop his curve from "just rolling up there."

Short rest? Fatigued arm?

"That's not an issue," he said. "I felt strong. I felt great. I just didn't get it done."

Maybe not. Burnett had the chance to clinch the American League pennant for the Yankees, on regular rest, and the Angels roughed him up.

"He just lacked command, similar to what he did in Anaheim," Girardi said.

That can happen. Lee had pitched 272 innings this season, by the time he got to the eighth inning Monday. He was gassed, even on regular rest.

The Phillies still might need Lee for Game 7, if there is one, for an inning or two or three. In Game 6, the Phillies will entrust the fate of their season to Pedro Martinez, who was out of work four months ago.

The Yankees ought to pull this out, with two games at home, with Hideki Matsui back in the lineup, with Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon and Alex Rodriguez all hitting, with the Phillies back to the closer du jour approach.

Then comes one of the Yankees' favorite times of the year, the Christmas shopping season.

They haven't necessarily given up on returning youngsters Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes to the rotation next year, although this year suggests the Yankees ought to keep them both in the bullpen.

Pettitte could opt to go out a winner and retire, and the Yankees could replace one strong Texas arm with another.

The Yankees could make room for Lackey. They could use a fresh arm.

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bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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