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Short night's work

Burkett couldn't escape from first

John Burkett has been in organized baseball for 20 years. He's been a major league regular since 1990 and he's started 423 games.

He has never, ever, had a night like he had last night.

Burkett not only played the skunk at the potential garden party, allowing seven runs in the first inning of a playoff-clinching game that the Sox lost, 7-3, to Baltimore. He also may have placed his status as a potential playoff starter in some doubt.

"I guarantee one thing: that didn't help my case," Burkett said after getting hammered in what proved to be the shortest stint of his major league career: one-third of an inning. The Orioles came, they swung, they connected and they ran around with impunity.

"Hopefully," Burkett said, "I'll get a chance [to pitch in the postseason]. I definitely would have liked to finish on a better note. Hopefully, we can finish this thing [tonight] and then see what happens."

The "thing" that needs to be finished is the Red Sox' clinching the wild-card spot. They didn't have much of a chance after Burkett surrendered those seven runs before even getting the second out. The Orioles had three singles to load the bases, a grand slam by Tony Batista ("a horrible pitch, pretty much BP for him," Burkett said), consecutive doubles by B.J. Surhoff and Jack Cust and then an infield single by Deivi Cruz, in which Burkett was a tad slow covering first base. Mercifully, manager Grady Little came out with the hook and Burkett established a personal low. His previous worst start was a two-thirds-of-an-inning stint Sept. 1, 1998, with Texas against the Tigers.

What went wrong? How about everything. Burkett has had a season-long tendency to allow runs in the first inning, but then recover and pitch well. Not last night.

"I left everything over the middle of the plate," said Burkett, who threw only 28 pitches. "It definitely was not the night I was looking forward to having. I left the balls over the plate and they took advantage."

Agreed Little, "Burky put too many pitches right in the middle of the strike zone and that's not where he's the most effective. We realize he's had a lot of games where he had difficulty in the first inning. But then he'd settle down. But [last night] was not going to be that night."

The loss dropped Burkett to 11-9, still not bad for a No. 5 starter. And Orioles manager Mike Hargrove noted, "You don't see John like that very often." Asked if he might have been too juiced with a playoff berth on the line, Burkett cracked, "I don't think I was overkeyed. What am I going to do? Throw 86 or 87 [miles per hour]? The best thing for me is to have good control. I just made too many mistakes."

So what does it all mean? Little won't even talk about the playoffs until it's a fait accompli. Burkett likely has made his last regular-season start; with four games left, the rotation is set with Derek Lowe, Pedro Martinez, Jeff Suppan, and Tim Wakefield. But the real unknown is who will be the team's No. 4 starter in the postseason, assuming Martinez, Lowe, and Wakefield are 1-3. Over the season, Burkett has made a decent case for himself, a case that probably shouldn't hinge entirely on last night's atrocity. He might suggest reviewing his prior outing, seven innings of three-hit shutout ball at Cleveland.

"I really don't know what to say. That's Grady's decision," Burkett said, when asked if Little might be overly influenced by last night's game. "Obviously, I would think it would be tougher for him to decide on me at this point, although I have confidence and I've had lots of bad games in my life and been able to come back and pitch a good game. For myself, I don't have a problem with it. Hopefully, Grady doesn't. And, if he does, I'll be there to do whatever job he wants me to do. That's just how I look at it."

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