Burnett pitched much better than his recent results suggested he would, and while he didn't win, he pitched well enough to give his team a chance to win. The Yankees seized this opportunity, and their 4-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox gave them the series victory. It also moved them to a half-game out of first place in the American League East.
Burnett's evening of competence included 5 1/3 innings pitched and two earned runs allowed. He left trailing, 2-1, but the Yankees rallied against the Boston bullpen for three in the seventh. Victories for the Yanks aren't coming with either ease or frequency against Boston in 2011, and this was no exception. The win marked just the fourth time in 15 tries that the Yankees had beaten the Sox this season.
In any case, this was a better result for the Yankees than the one you would have anticipated simply looking at the pitching matchup prior to the game; Burnett, with a 9-11 record and a 5.31 earned run average against Jon Lester (14-6, 3.09) of the Red Sox.
In fact, based on recent results, a reasonable expectation for Burnett's start Thursday night was that he would get shelled. Burnett had been battered in his recent starts, posting an 11.91 ERA for the month of August. And there wasn't much encouragement to be found in his relatively recent work against the Sox, either. In his last nine starts against Boston, including eight as a Yankee, he had gone 0-4 with an 8.01 ERA.
But against a difficult lineup, Burnett was scored upon in only one inning -- the fourth -- when Adrian Gonzalez led off with a ground-rule double and Dustin Pedroia followed with a long home run to center. The Yankees on offense did what they so often do to the opposing starter: drive up his pitch count. In Lester's case on Thursday night, this meant 43 pitches in the first inning alone. With that kind of early workload, Lester was able to last only five innings. He did what he could do, leaving with the lead, but he departed earlier than Boston's preferred game plan would have dictated.
At this point, the five-man Yankee rotation for the remainder of the regular season might include Burnett and exclude Phil Hughes. Hughes looks like a better bullpen option. He has experience pitching in relief, and much of that experience was positive. He was, after all, a major factor in 2009 when the Yankees won the World Series.
But the more important question may be answered when the Yankees formulate their rotation for the postseason. Based on work that stretches over an entire season, the four pitchers in that group would be CC Sabathia, and some combination of Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova.
Burnett's one positive start against Boston isn't enough to vault him ahead of anybody else in this contest. What it more likely does is qualify him for more September starts. At this point, what could put him in the postseason rotation would be, apart from an injury and/or ineffectiveness elsewhere, consistently solid starts over the rest of the regular season.
Yankee manager Joe Girardi, while not offering any definitive conclusions on these issues, was obviously pleased by Burnett's performance. He noted that when Burnett missed with pitches, he primarily missed low. "That's huge for him," Girardi said.
The manager also said that Burnett's work in preparation for this start had been impressive enough that he expected him to perform well. "I just had a feeling tonight that he was going to get it done," Girardi said. "And he did."
Burnett said that his curveball was better than in recent starts, along with his ability to repeat his delivery and his pitches. Overall, this performance gave him hope for the rest of the season.
"This is something I can work with," Burnett said. "This is something I can build on. I felt really comfortable out there. It all goes down to focus and conviction."
The chance to pitch in the postseason is still within Burnett's grasp. It is not that difficult to recall how crucial his performance was in Game 2 of the 2009 World Series, a victory that turned the Series in the Yankees' direction.
On the other hand, his $82.5-million contract will not be a factor in this decision, particularly for the Yankees. The San Francisco Giants have already set the record in this area, leaving Barry Zito and his $126-million contract as a bystander in their postseason championship run last year.
The issue for Burnett is often framed as whether he can pitch up to the level of his contract. That hasn't happened much over the course of the last two years, so how about framing the question in a more usable fashion? Can A.J. Burnett once again pitch up to the level that his stuff dictates? He did that on Thursday night, but for him to be a postseason contributor, it would have to happen on a regular basis.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.