- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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DETROIT -- A.J. Burnett is about as popular in New York as a sanitation workers' strike, but he's gifted with an ability to unite the populace in a sense of shared panic and despair. As Burnett prepared to start Game 4 of the American League Division Series, nervous fans clogged the radio talk show lines, holding the equivalent of a public prayer vigil for the double-figure offensive output the New York Yankees ostensibly needed to beat the Detroit Tigers.
Maybe it's bravado, obliviousness or the inherent competitiveness that all professional athletes need to survive the hard times, but Burnett seemed strangely calm and self-assured amid the storm that surrounded him. During a news conference Monday he referred to himself in the third person, vowing to bring everything he had and "let A.J. loose out there.'' If it's physically possible to swagger while perched on a folding chair, he managed.
In the end, of course, it all comes down to backing up those words with actions. When Derek Jeter praised him late Tuesday night for coming up "huge'' in a big situation, and manager Joe Girardi pronounced himself "proud'' of Burnett's effort, that was all the validation Burnett needed.
Burnett turned in an October Vindication Special in Game 4, logging 5 2/3 effective innings, and the Yankees pulled even in the best-of-five series with a 10-1 demolition of the Tigers. He stuck around only long enough to record 17 outs. But it was one definitive 17-out statement.
"A.J. deserves all the credit,'' Jeter said. "He shut down a tough team over there. He's the reason we get an opportunity to play on Thursday.
"No one is thinking of what happened prior to [Game 4]. We wanted him to go out there and pitch well. Trust me -- I'm pretty sure all New York fans will remember this game as opposed to some of the other games.''
It's only fitting that this matchup will go the distance, given the winding road it's traveled over the past six days. The series began with a weather ordeal in the Bronx, weaved its way through standout performances by Robinson Cano and Miguel Cabrera, and crested emotionally with the big Justin Verlander-CC Sabathia matchup in Game 3 at Comerica Park.
And now, if the Tigers plan to advance and play the Texas Rangers in the next round, they'll have to win in a hostile setting, with midseason trade acquisition Doug Fister taking on Yankees rookie right-hander Ivan Nova in a Game 1 rematch Thursday night.
The Yankees have outscored the Tigers 19-4 in their two victories, while losing two squeakers in the series. They unleashed the dogs Tuesday, banging out 13 hits and batting around in the eighth inning to prompt a full-scale evacuation of Comerica Park. Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, who've looked lost for the most part, picked up their first hits in the series. And MVP candidate Curtis Granderson took care of the defense, bailing out Burnett with a spectacular bases-loaded catch on a ball hit by Don Kelly in the first inning and robbing Jhonny Peralta of extra bases with a diving grab in the sixth.
But the most compelling human-interest story belonged to Burnett, who knows all about how Vernon Wells, Barry Zito, Adam Dunn, Jayson Werth, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Derek Lowe, Jason Bay and Aaron Rowand must feel as players with substantial contracts and low public approval ratings. As hard as Burnett tries to change the perception, some Yankees fans will always regard him as a tatted-up underachiever.
After posting a 34-35 record with a 4.79 ERA in the first three seasons of a five-year, $82.5 million deal with New York, Burnett is a mystery even to the pitching authorities. During a Yankees-Orioles series earlier this year, Baltimore broadcaster Jim Palmer wondered aloud how a pitcher with Burnett's arm could have such mediocre results. So Palmer asked fellow broadcaster Jim Kaat, who took a stab at explaining the disconnect. As Kaat pointed out to Palmer, Burnett gives up lots of home runs, issues plenty of walks, wild pitches and hit batsmen, and doesn't hold baserunners or field his position particularly well.
In other words, attention to detail is not his forte. Far too often, it's less a question of the pitches emanating from Burnett's right arm than what's going on beneath his Yankees cap.
Burnett's confidence couldn't have been too high after Girardi announced plans to go with a three-man rotation in the ALDS. Then the rain prompted a change and an opportunity for Burnett. Given how maligned Burnett is in New York, it was not perceived as welcome news.
"It's hard to separate what people say, especially when you're in a big city and it's repeated all the time,'' Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "A.J. has been through hell and back, really. It hasn't been an easy thing the last couple of years.
"But for his own well-being, it's about concentrating on what he needs to do. As far as I'm concerned, turn off the radio and don't buy papers. And whether [the sentiment out there] is good, bad or indifferent, just pitch.''
For what it's worth, Rothschild and catcher Russell Martin both saw a relaxed and confident Burnett in the days and hours leading up to this start. In his pregame bullpen session, Burnett's fastball was lively, he threw his breaking ball where he wanted to, and he had the requisite feel for his changeup.
"He looked calm and focused out there,'' Martin said. "That doesn't necessarily mean it will be that way during the game. But it's a good sign when he has command like that in the bullpen.''
True to form, Burnett had to work through some early issues. He threw 14 balls and seven strikes in the first inning, while fighting the same adrenaline rush that gripped Verlander and Sabathia the previous night. But he retired to the dugout after the inning, conferred briefly with Rothschild, and quieted down his delivery. And presto -- he threw nine strikes in a 10-pitch span in the second inning to get himself on track.
Burnett refused to rattle after a solo homer by Victor Martinez and a Peralta double in the fourth, and retired Cabrera and Martinez leading off the sixth before surrendering a single to Kelly. He had thrown 81 pitches when Girardi emerged from the dugout and signaled for Rafael Soriano.
The Yankees' bullpen, entrusted with a 4-1 lead, still had to record 10 more outs. But in light of all the talk of Girardi having Burnett on a "short leash,'' it wasn't much of a challenge.
After deciding to change pitchers, Girardi came to the mound and told Burnett, "Great job.'' And Burnett, grateful that Girardi had shown faith in him at times when it might not have been the popular thing to do, showed the skipper a little man-love in return -- smacking Girardi on the butt with his glove as he departed. Burnett said he wasn't even aware of the gesture until a reporter apprised him of it after the game.
"It was probably a little 'thank you' for all the stuff he's done for me,'' Burnett said.
A.J. Burnett earned himself a little redemption with a memorable outing, and Girardi is now assured of managing at least one more game this season. All things considered, they both have cause to be grateful.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.
The Yankees hadn't planned on having A.J. Burnett start a game in this ALDS, but there he was in a win-or-go-home Game 4 and he delivered to save New York's season.