Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Yankees Rothschild Guiding Young Guns, Old Cannons & A Head-Case

It's still to early in spring training to call in the AL East title because of the performances of a few pitchers but, when you're the New York Yankees and the candidates for your third, fourth and fifth starting pitchers are a collection of inexperienced youngsters, old war-horses and a head-case trying to rebound,  the nice early numbers have to stoke high expectations.

Maybe Brian Cashman's Plans B, C and D, after being spurned by Cliff Lee, are working and new pitching coach Larry Rothschild's pitching philosophy will yield hefty returns.

Cashman, who loaded up on bargain-basement antiques like 34 year-old Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon to match arms with kids Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre, is starting to look like the Boy Wonder again.

Those four players have each pitched 5 innings this spring and have given up a total of one earned run (Colon) and struck out 14 overall batters.

From the first day of camp, manager Joe Girardi made it clear that picking the final spots would not be quick or easy.  Now it looks like it could take longer and be a lot harder.

"We won't make decisions till the end," said Girardi.  "We are going to take our time.  Right now with the four guys there is no separation yet."

The real revelation is Rothschild's work with A.J. Burnett, the ineffective and much maligned No. 3 starter.  The Yankees have to be happy with his first two outings: 5 Innings pitched, no earned runs or walks and---most important---no mental or physical breakdowns.

After Burnett's miserable 2010 season, it would have been a bad omen if he wilted in his first two games.  Never mind the final two spots in the rotation, the Yankees would be looking to fill the last three and it could turn into a wild game of musical chairs.

After throwing three perfect innings against the Phillies on Monday, the 34 year-old Burnett hinted that he knows it's early, but didn't want to hear the demon voices of last season to start bouncing around in his head again.

"I didn't want to come in for one inning, give up four homers, come out and say, 'It's just my second start,' "said Burnett.  "The fact that I was in control, the fact that the last batter I faced, the last five pitches were all down and away in the perfect spot.  I'm able to repeat easier.  My mind is clear.  I'm not thinking about this or that; I'm just attacking."

Last season one or two bad pitches would usually boil into a major meltdown for Burnett.  This year he is putting his trust in Rothschild.  That mutual trust is rubbing off.

Rothschild  began working with Burnett in January and put the emphasis on the pitcher getting better balance in his lower body so he wouldn't move side-to-side---a major reason his pitches were falling flat claims Rothschild.

Girardi has noticed more than Burnett's improved throwing mechanics, he is more impressed with the right-hander's body language.

"I look to how comfortable he is as opposed to the results," said Girardi.  "[Last year] he looked like he was searching.  He looked frustrated at times he was disgusted at himself."

What happens if Burnett and the other four pitchers run neck-and-neck all spring?  Mitre would probably end up in the bullpen again and Nova could end up as a relief pitcher or as a starter in Triple-A.

It's only March but even new catcher Russell Martin liked what he saw after catching Burnett.  When asked about Burnett compared to last season, Russell said, " He had his 'A' stuff."

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