- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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NEW YORK -- Justin Verlander is no longer the most frightening right-hander in the series, not even close. As ominous season-threatening figures go, the Game 3 starter for Detroit has nothing on the Game 4 starter for New York.
A.J. Burnett is the Yankees' worst nightmare, a pitcher with good stuff and bad everything else. He isn't wired to carry the burdens tethered to a 2-1 division series lead, never mind a 2-1 division series deficit.
And yet there he is lurking around the bend, ready to follow Verlander versus Sabathia with a misadventure his team can't afford to weather in the early hours of October. If Mariano Rivera is the indomitable closer, Burnett is the indefensible opener.
Billy Beane, "Moneyball" maestro, once said this of facing Rivera in the Yanks' classic first-round matchups with the Oakland A's:
"It was so psychological to know he was out there. You had no chance. You knew Rivera had the sickle in hand ready to get you."
Burnett is the same kind of hooded, sickle-wielding haunt, with one small difference: He doesn't bring death to the Yankees' opponents, but to the Yankees themselves.
It happened that way against Texas during last year's ALCS, when Joe Girardi stayed with Burnett long enough to watch him throw a lazy first-pitch fastball to Bengie Molina. As soon as A.J. let it go, he knew it was bad news. Molina slammed it over the left-field wall, the ball sailing along with the Yanks' season.
Some in the Bronx were committed right then and there to never again allow Burnett to spray graffiti across the franchise mission statement. But after A.J. was A.J. again in 2011, and after his manager announced he was going with a three-man rotation against Detroit, the storm clouds rolled in Friday night and made Burnett a non-person no more.
"His month of September was not bad," Girardi said.
That was the best the manager could do. Girardi is forever tripping over himself in defense of his players, so it was telling that all he could muster for Burnett was a reminder that the right-hander's final regular season month was "not bad."
Burnett? Even before the Tigers beat the Yanks by a 5-3 count in Game 2, even before Max Scherzer no-hit the American League's top seed through 5-1/3 innings, A.J. didn't sound like a man eager to inspire the fan base's faith.
"I'm just going to go at it as a start," he said. "It's my chance to get on the mound to be a part of something and to do what I can as long as I can, until Joe takes me out."
Knute Rockne it was not.
As it happened, the Yankees' only source of Game 2 inspiration came in the form of a wet and wild ninth-inning rally against a closer, Jose Valverde, who hadn't blown a single save in 49 regular-season chances. The rally included a Nick Swisher home run, a Jorge Posada triple (of all things), a hard rain (what else?), a standing, stomping crowd, and a potential final out botched by a catcher (Alex Avila) slipping on the visitors' on-deck circle while tracking a foul pop off Curtis Granderson's bat.
At the plate with two outs, Robinson Cano represented the winning run. He kept fouling off pitches and, like a tennis player, kept drying off his face and weapon with a towel provided by Alex Rodriguez.
Called "one of the best players I've ever seen" by Jim Leyland, who's seen them all, Cano buckled on Valverde's 34th pitch by slapping a benign grounder to second, giving Detroit the same Game 2 victory it scored over the Yanks during its four-game triumph in 2006.
"That was our No. 1 goal," Scherzer said, "to come here and split. Now we're able to give [Verlander] the ball for Game 3. For us we have to like where we're sitting."
Yes, the Tigers have to like their position better than the favorites like theirs. While CC Sabathia is capable of beating Verlander on Monday -- "We always feel good when CC is on the mound," Girardi said -- Burnett is more capable of losing to the Jersey boy, Rick Porcello, on Tuesday to force an all-or-nothing Game 5 the Yanks would much rather avoid.
And if Verlander happens to win Game 3, well, it's time to break out the Hefty bags and store away the champagne.
"A lot of people talk about Game 3 being the most important game of a series all the time," Girardi said. "It's real important."
Never more important than when Burnett is scheduled to take the Game 4 ball on the road, where hostile fans won't be shouting nice things about his tattoos.
Of course, some of this high anxiety might've been avoided had A-Rod and Mark Teixeira decided to hit, had Girardi decided to walk Miguel Cabrera in the sixth, and had the losing manager thrown a real reliever in the ninth instead of the white flag disguised as Luis Ayala.
"We had our shot," Girardi said.
And they blew it. Now the one player on the roster no Yankee on truth serum wanted to see in this series might actually get to decide it.
"I'm looking forward to going out and helping this team," Burnett said.
He usually helps this team by not venturing within three area codes of the mound. But the rains washed away the master plan, forcing Girardi to put his team in harm's way.
If the Yankees will need a little luck to beat Justin Verlander in Game 3, they'll need an act of divine mercy to survive A.J. Burnett in Game 4.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter". Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.
A.J. Burnett is looming, promising a misadventure the Yanks can't afford.