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Burnett back to form; Yanks win fifth straight

Burnett back to form; Yanks win fifth straight

NEW YORK -- In the five days since A.J. Burnett last took the mound on the South Side of Chicago, manager Joe Girardi had reiterated that the Yankees needed Burnett to overcome his latest bout with ineffectiveness.

The verb was significant and unchanging. It was never "want" or "hope" or "would like." It was "need" Girardi said over and over -- need for the September stretch run and need for, hopefully, beyond.

On Wednesday night, A.J. Burnett was, perhaps, not as good as you would want or hope or like. But Burnett was as good as the Yankees need him to be, earning his first win since July with six innings of three-run ball in New York's 4-3 win over Oakland.

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"That's a personality win, in a sense," Girardi said of Burnett, who hadn't had a "W" juxtaposed to his name since July 28 in Cleveland. "For him, it's a big win. It's a big win for us."

Girardi has certainly reinforced the connection between Burnett's success and that of the Yankees over the next two months. The man who was the No. 2 starter during last postseason's championship run had fallen so much since the beginning of June that Girardi hinted that Burnett's spot in the rotation was in jeopardy after his last outing against the White Sox.

Wednesday, though, was different, and Burnett said it started with his second pitch of the evening -- a curveball that Coco Crisp took for a strike.

"I was able to establish the curveball early, and I think that really helped," Burnett said. "For the most part, I attacked."

Burnett didn't just establish the curveball early; he established it in the strike zone early. A pitch he has thrown for a strike barely 50 percent of the time this season, Burnett threw 20 of his 32 hooks for strikes on Wednesday. Furthermore, he generated eight swings and misses with the curveball; he had registered that many on the pitch in the entire month of August.

"Getting it going early does help a lot," Burnett said. "It's a swing-and-miss pitch, but the more I throw it for a strike, the more it helps."

Burnett really found the groove with his curveball in his final inning, the sixth, when he struck out Kevin Kouzmanoff on three straight curves before getting Jeff Larish to swing over it for his eighth and final punchout of the night.

"I know from facing him -- when he's throwing his breaking ball for strikes, he's pretty tough," Derek Jeter said. "This was a step in the right direction for him."

Burnett's success wasn't all about the curveball. He was also able to locate his fastball on both corners and effectively mix in his seldom-used changeup, which Girardi said could give hitters something else to think about other than his normal fastball-changeup approach.

Pitching coach Dave Eiland saw purer mechanics from the right-hander.

"I saw him repeat his delivery, his balance was very good, his timing was tremendous," Eiland said. "Of course he needed it. We all needed it."

Burnett, in fact, sought Eiland out following his poor outing in Chicago, telling his coach that he was sick of struggling. The two worked as much on Burnett's mentality -- on battling through difficult innings -- as they did on his mechanics.

The work paid dividends in the fourth, after Burnett made his first mistake of the evening -- a fastball he left up in the zone that resulted in a two-run opposite-field homer for Kouzmanoff. Mark Ellis followed with a single, but Burnett refused to break, inducing a double-play grounder from Larish to end the inning.

"A.J. came back with a great attitude after his start in Chicago, worked his rear end off, really seemed to be in a good frame of mind and got it right," Girardi said. "I liked his approach, and I liked what he did."

It isn't like Burnett hasn't been here before, though, and he knows the key is now to extend it to the next start.

"It's a matter of repeating it the next time out and the next time out and the next time out," he said. "My job is to go out and do what I did tonight and keep it going this month. It's time to pick it up."

And Burnett's quality start became a win because the Yankees again jumped on an Oakland starter early, although this time Brett Anderson has his fielding to blame as much as his pitching. Anderson dropped a toss from Daric Barton on Jeter's two-out grounder in the second, allowing Curtis Granderson to score from second.

"That was one of the few times in my short big league career I beat somebody to the bag," Anderson said, "and then I had too much time to think about it. That was a typical play by me, falling over like that. If I catch the ball or even if I just don't fall, the run doesn't score. That's just the way it goes sometimes."

Mark Teixeira followed with a two-run single that snuck through the left side of the infield. Teixeira had already doubled home New York's other run in the first. The first baseman is now 8-for-10 with two homers and seven RBIs in the first three games of the series.

Burnett's flop on the South Side sparked questions about the Yankees' long-term health of their starting rotation. In the five games since, though, the team is 5-0, with four starters picking up wins. Not coincidentally, they're in first alone, as well.

"It feels good to get a 'W,' but it's a 'W' that keeps the streak going," Burnett said. "We've got Tampa right there with us, Boston right there with us. Every win is huge."

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

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