The poor play started on the hill with A.J. Burnett, who allowed hits to five of the first six batters he faced and improved only marginally afterward. The right-hander gave up four runs in the first, one in the third and four more in the fourth. He departed with one out in the fourth frame, his final line showing he gave up nine runs (eight earned) on eight hits.
"It's Groundhog Day again," Burnett said. "I'm leaving balls over the plate."
Chicago's four-run first was bookended by doubles from Juan Pierre and A.J. Pierzynski. In between, the White Sox rapped out three singles and stole a base, taking an early 4-1 lead.
Burnett appeared to settle in with a 1-2-3 second, but that inning proved to be the aberration. He allowed a run on a walk and a pair of wild pitches in the third, then allowed four consecutive runners to reach base in the fourth with one out. Alex Rios' RBI single to left ended Burnett's evening -- the third time this season he's given up eight earned runs in a game.
Burnett has now given up at least six earned runs in nine of his 26 starts, or more than one-third of them.
"We're in a tight race. That's unacceptable," Burnett said.
But when asked what wasn't working, he seemed as stumped as anyone.
"I'm just not getting swings on pitches I'm used to getting swings on," Burnett said. "The balls they're hitting are just getting too much of the plate, I guess."
"His stuff is still as good as ever," said Pierzynski. "One thing about Burnett is you have to battle. His stuff is that good that you can't give away anything, because he'll eat you alive if you do."
Burnett has always been known as an unpredictable commodity on the mound -- a pitcher with great stuff, so long as he's on. This season has amplified the frequency of his undulations: He posted an 11.35 ERA in June, a 2.00 ERA in July and now a 7.80 ERA in August.
"That's pretty much been my career," he said of the ups and downs. "I'm strong enough to deal with it."
It's true that Burnett is not getting as many swings and misses as in years past. According to Fangraphs, Burnett's swinging-strike percentage this season is the lowest of his career, and his strikeouts per nine innings are down to their lowest level since 2001. Chicago swung and missed on only six of Burnett's 81 pitches on Friday night.
"He's had more [ups and downs] this year than he did last year," said Girardi. "The one thing that has to be consistent is your command. If that's not consistent, then it's difficult to put a long streak together."
Indeed, Burnett has not posted three consecutive quality starts since Aug. 7-17 last season.
His most recent funk, following a brief spell of apparent reliability in July, only further obscures the Yankees' plans with their starting rotation. Andy Pettitte is still injured, Phil Hughes' innings are limited and Javier Vazquez was just moved to the bullpen. What was formerly a deep staff has become as shallow as one headlined by CC Sabathia can be.
"We need him to pitch better," said Girardi, who declined to slot Burnett in for his next start five days from now. "We'll evaluate after this weekend where we are and what we have to do. Take it how you want to."
Burnett expects to make his next start.
"It would surprise me," he said of either being skipped or sent to the bullpen. He still looks for the positives, even though he admits he's had trouble finding any over his past couple starts.
"He's got to calm down," catcher Francisco Cervelli said. "We believe in him. We know it's going to change."
Burnett was not the only Yankee to struggle on Friday; the ugliest stretch of the game occurred immediately following his departure. With men on first and third, Rios broke for second and Cervelli's throw bounced away and into center field, allowing Omar Vizquel to score and Rios to move to third. Sergio Mitre's next pitch was wild, and Rios crossed the plate to make it 9-2.
Freddy Garcia earned his 11th win of the season, quieting the Yankees' bats over seven. His lone mistake was committing a two-base error on Brett Gardner's leadoff infield single. Gardner scored on Derek Jeter's groundout one batter later to stake the Yankees to a lead they relinquished just as quickly.
Gardner drove in a run in the third, and New York's best threat of the night was quashed when Rios chased down Robinson Cano's drive to the warning track in right-center with a runner on in a 4-2 game.
Nick Swisher's two-run homer in the ninth only served to make the margin look better in the box score.