Yanks no longer alone atop AL East

Yanks no longer alone atop AL East

NEW YORK -- By now, the Yankees have grown acclimated to the fickle nature of A.J. Burnett's craft. Burnett is not a pitcher who operates on a continuum -- there is on, there is off and there is seldom anything in between. He can vacillate between the two poles with little order and with less warning.

In the Yankees' 8-6 loss to the Blue Jays on Monday night, Burnett was on. And then, all of a sudden, he wasn't.

For four innings, Burnett looked just like the pitcher who had tossed scoreless outings each of his past two times out, the pitcher who, in fact, had a half-dozen such outings this season -- more than any member of the estimable Yankees rotation and tied for the most in the entire Major Leagues.

Sure, Burnett's trademark knuckle-curve had been a bit erratic. He threw it 15 times in the first four innings and only three times for strikes. But the right-hander was relying more on his sinker, which was down in the zone, and he had given up just two hits and a lone run on a Vernon Wells homer that snuck into the right-field seats.

The fifth inning, though, was different. The light didn't dim for Burnett in the fifth; it blew out. During the first four innings, Burnett was on the mound for 28 minutes and 54 pitches; the fifth required 27 minutes and 46 pitches -- 41 from Burnett, five from his replacement, Sergio Mitre. The fifth inning included six Toronto hits off Burnett -- a second-deck two-run homer from Edwin Encarnacion and five doubles. Burnett allowed seven runs in the frame, and the Yankees' 2-1 lead had mutated into an 8-2 deficit and eventually, a loss that dumped them into a first-place tie.

Burnett, in his defense, didn't plead the fifth when asked about an inning that must have felt like cruel and unusual punishment.

"The sinker was just getting too much of the plate," Burnett said. "Singles are all right, but extra-base hits and homers take you out of the game."

Indeed, Burnett gave up six extra-base hits in the inning; he had done that in an entire start just five times in his career.

The seven runs allowed tied the most the Yankees had surrendered in a single inning this season. When Mitre served up Travis Snider's second double of the inning, the Blue Jays tied an American League record with six two-baggers in one frame.

"I think we were just able to get some good pitches to hit, and we weren't missing them," said Snider, who led off the inning with a double, scored and then drove in a run with his other double. "When things get rolling, it's contagious."

"It just kept going and going," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of the inning. "You're surprised when [Burnett] gives up a big inning like that."

Burnett's caprice on Monday night is only a microcosm of the larger picture. He has those six scoreless outings among his 22 starts, but he also has seven now in which he's allowed six earned runs or more. Since his dreadful June, it's been a case of two steps forward and one step back, with the right-hander as yet unable to string together three reliable starts in a row.

Asked if he found his inconsistency baffling, Burnett replied coyly, "There are a lot of things that baffle me. But you deal with it and move on."

The Yankees need Burnett to deal with it, and promptly. They will wake up on Tuesday and, for the first time since June 19, find company at the top of the AL East standings with the Rays, who beat the Twins, 4-2, on Monday for their ninth win in 10 games.

But Nick Swisher, who provided much of the Bronx Bombers' offense with a pair of long home runs, wasn't worried.

"We've got two long months ahead of us," Swisher said after glancing at the calendar to remind himself of the date. "So it doesn't mean too much right now."

"I thought this thing was going to go to the wire," Girardi said. "You're going to have good times and bad times, and you try to keep the bad times as short as possible."

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