By Neil Keefe
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You never want to trust a guy who lost 15 games for a 95-win team and you probably don’t want to give that guy too much responsibility either. But the Yankees and their fans are being forced to believe in A.J. Burnett, whose responsibilities are growing daily.

The Yankees entered 2011 knowing that the season rested on a shaky rotation and that Burnett was the key to any chance the Yankees would have at winning the division and reaching the postseason. Most people believed that if Burnett could just flip his 10-15 record from 2010 and turn it into a 15-10 record in 2011, the rotation would be stable enough that the best offense in baseball could take care of the rest.

That theory took into account that CC Sabathia would be a dominant ace (which he has been) and that Phil Hughes would continue to build on his 18-win season of a year ago (which isn’t exactly going to plan). The problem is through nine games, the Yankees have lost two games Sabathia has started (a recipe for disaster) despite the ace giving up just one earned run in 12 2/3 innings in those two games, and Hughes is mysteriously throwing at Javier Vazquez speeds. Now there is reason for concern that the 24-year-old righty might be injured, going through a dead arm period or might have just lost his fastball overnight like Henry Rowengartner.

With Ivan Nova still trying to figure out how to make it through the fifth and sixth innings and Freddy Garcia having just one inning under his belt since spring training, the Yankees have much greater problems than if Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada and Mark Teixeira are going to start hitting again. But with the Red Sox losing every day and turning out to be anything but The Best Team Ever, the Yankees’ pitching problems are going somewhat unnoticed.

The only sure thing right now in the Yankees rotation is that every five days (or whenever the rotation rolls over with all of these off-days and rainouts) Sabathia is going to give the Yankees a chance to win. After that, it’s pretty much a coin flip as to whether or not the Yankees will get a quality start out of that day’s starting pitcher or if Bartolo Colon is going to be trotting in for the third inning like he did at Fenway on Friday.

But Burnett can change that. Burnett can be the $82.5 million man the Yankees gave a fifth year to when no one else would prior to the 2009 season. He can be the guy with all this “great stuff” we keep hearing about, but so rarely see. I know we’re asking a lot from a guy who makes $16.5 million a year and giving him more responsibility than he might like, but right now it’s the only option.

The first two starts of the season for Burnett were encouraging. He’s 2-0 and has struck out 11 in 11 innings, but what’s even more reassuring is that he’s keeping men off base (just 13 base runners in 11 innings), which was his biggest downfall in 2010.

It was refreshing to see “Good A.J.” with his infamous “great stuff” in his first two starts of the year. The Yankees are going to need it for more a lot more than two starts. The Yankees need A.J. Burnett now more than ever, and I need a drink equally as bad.

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