Commentary

Forecast: Rain with a chance of A.J.

Game 1 washout means Yanks need fourth starter in ALDS, which likely equals Burnett

Updated: October 1, 2011, 2:04 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Not since a swarm of midges decided to have a picnic on Joba Chamberlain's face has a force of nature wreaked as much havoc on the New York Yankees' playoff hopes as the rains did Friday night.

Those pesky insects rattled Joba so thoroughly in Game 2 of the 2007 American League Division Series against Cleveland that the Yankees were never the same for the rest of that series. Joba, arguably, has never been the same since.

Now comes the deluge of 2011 that not only wiped out Game 1 of the ALDS after a mere 1½ innings with the game tied at 1, but also wiped out what was shaping up to be CC Sabathia's best start in nearly a month.

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IICC Sabathia trudged off the mound after two innings of work. He likely won't be back until Game 3.

The Yankees have got to hope it didn't wipe out their chances to beat the Detroit Tigers and move on to the American League Championship Series as well.

"It'd be different if it only rained for us and they got to play," Derek Jeter said after the game was suspended after more than an hour of steady, often torrential downpour. "But it happened to them, too, so you can't get too upset about it."

True enough, the Tigers also lost the use of their ace, Justin Verlander. When the game resumes Saturday night in the bottom of the second, Ivan Nova, a right-hander, will be pitching for the Yankees and Doug Fister will pick up for Verlander and the Tigers.

But if a suspended game can feel like a loss, this one certainly did.

For one thing, there was Sabathia, throwing hard, throwing strikes, inducing swings-and-misses, striking out four of the first seven batters he faced. He had one slipup, a fastball that Delmon Young drove the other way and dropped one row beyond the right-field fence in the first inning, but otherwise it looked like vintage CC out there, a variety we have seen far too seldom over the second half of the season.

For another, Verlander didn't look much like the 24-game winner a lot of people were comparing to Sandy Koufax for much of the season. Even though he didn't allow a hit in his one inning of work, his command was ragged, his control was a bit off and the Yankees were making him work.

For a third element, the Tigers seemed to be suffering opening-night jitters, with Miguel Cabrera freezing and failing to turn a double play on Robinson Cano's grounder to first and Brandon Inge electing not to throw home as Jeter, either aggressively or foolishly, broke for the plate on Alex Rodriguez's bouncer to third.

And have I mentioned yet that the disruption of the pitching rotations now not only ensures that Sabathia (and Verlander) can appear only once, it also brings A.J. Burnett into the picture?

The elimination of the workout day -- Game 2 will be played on Sunday at 3:07 p.m. -- means the teams will now play four days in a row, necessitating the use of a fourth starter by the Yankees.

And that can only mean Burnett.

"That is something we'll obviously have to talk about," manager Joe Girardi said. "A.J. Is obviously the most stretched out for us in that situation."

But there really is nothing to talk about. Unless Burnett cuts himself in a kitchen accident or something, allowing the Yankees to add Bartolo Colon to their playoff roster, he is going to make a start in this series, most likely in Game 4 if it gets that far.

Right now, the rotation is Nova in the continuation of Game 1, Freddy Garcia in Game 2 and (probably) Sabathia versus Verlander in Game 3 after the false start of Game 1.

That leaves only Burnett to pitch Game 4, and if necessary, a fully rested Nova for Game 5.

"I don't want to think too far ahead. I just want to try to clear my mind and get focused on tomorrow," Yankees catcher Russell Martin said. "But I have all the confidence in the world in A.J. I think his last couple of starts have been great. I think when he just goes out there and doesn't think too much and just lets his ability take over, that's when he's great."

The odds that Burnett will be able to take the ball in a crucial playoff start and not think too much? You don't want to calculate them.

Nor do you want to calculate the Yankees' chances now that Sabathia will pitch only one of these five games.

The loss of two starts from their ace is a lot more damaging to the Yankees than to the Tigers, simply because the Tigers have more good arms behind Verlander than the Yankees have behind CC.

In fact, Verlander's tag-team partner for Saturday, Fister, virtually pitched Verlander to a dead heat since joining the Tigers at the trade deadline.

Since Aug. 3, Fister is 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA; Verlander 9-0 with a 2.82. Clearly, Verlander's stuff is better; he struck out 82 batters in 70 innings over that span to Fister's 57 in 70 1/3. But here is an interesting stat: Over that span, Fister allowed 54 hits, Verlander 53. And here is an eye-popping stat: Over that same span, Verlander walked 21 batters, Fister only five.

The numbers say that over the last two months of the season, it has been easier to get runners on base against Verlander than Fister. And the first inning Friday night was shaping up as more of the same. The Tigers may actually have gotten a break to get Verlander, who walked two of the first five hitters he faced, out of there before his pitch count really started to mount.

Now the Yankees get to deal with Fister, who has been a completely different pitcher since coming over from the Mariners, where he had been 3-12, although with a more than respectable 3.33 ERA.

"He pitched a very good game against us when he was with Seattle earlier this year," Girardi said of Fister. "Our guys are aware of what he's got."

And the Yankees were quite aware of what Sabathia had in the first two innings of Game 1. Sabathia had allowed 10 hits in five of his last 10 starts of the regular season, nine in another. He had allowed 11 homers in 10 starts and his ERA over that span was 4.02. He was still an above-average pitcher, but just barely.

For the first two innings Friday night, however, he looked like the CC who led the Yankees to the 2009 World Series title and just missed winning the 2010 Cy Young.

"He had good life with his fastball," Martin said. "His two-seamer had some good action to it and it looked like he had a good feel for his changeup. He got swings and misses with his slider. So when all those things are happening for him he's usually pretty good. It's just unfortunate it got stopped short."

Asked if he thought he was throwing better than he has over the past two months, Sabathia said, "It was only two innings, but yeah. I was getting ahead. The counts were better. I felt pretty good."

For those two innings, so did the Yankees.

But then the rains came and now, A.J. Burnett will start as many games in this ALDS as Sabathia will.

Compared with that prospect, a swarm of midges hardly seems like much of a problem.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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