Commentary

A.J. comes up big for Yankees

Bronx Bombers needed Burnett to pitch them into Thursday; he didn't let them down

Updated: October 5, 2011, 3:47 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

DETROIT -- In reality, the New York Yankees weren't asking all that much of A.J. Burnett on Tuesday night.

They weren't asking him to undo all the harm he had done over the past two seasons, when he went a combined 21-26 with a 5.20 ERA.

They weren't asking him to justify his five-year, $82.5 million contract, which since June has looked like a worse investment than Florida real estate.

And they weren't even asking him to re-establish his credentials for the job they had hired him to perform, which was to serve as a reliable No. 2 starter behind CC Sabathia.

All the Yankees were asking A.J. Burnett on this night was to pitch them to Thursday.

Still, it seemed like too much to ask of a pitcher who just a week ago was deemed unfit to pitch even one of the games of the best-of-five ALDS.

Suddenly, due to the unscheduled expiration of Bartolo Colon's effectiveness and the intervention of a rainstorm, the Yankees needed him to pitch the most important one of all.

And of course, pitching for the first time in his Yankees career like exactly what he was -- a man with nothing to lose -- A.J. Burnett came up a big winner.

As a result, there will be baseball in the Bronx again this year, one more game at least, on Thursday night at Yankee Stadium when the Yankees try to finish off the Detroit Tigers and move one step close to their 28th World Series.

"I was proud of what he did," manager Joe Girardi said after Burnett had worked 5 2/3 innings and held the Tigers to four hits and just one run. "In a must-win situation, he pitched one of his best games of the year. I was thrilled for him."

When Girardi came to get Burnett on this night, there were no hard looks, no temper tantrums, no swear words tossed back over the shoulder on the way to the clubhouse.

Instead, there were high-fives all around on the mound, and a couple of slaps on the chest from the manager, and a return pat on the butt from Burnett to Girardi with his glove.

The Yankees led 4-1 at the time, and would go one to make a rout of it -- 10-1 was the final. But the story was not so much the bats, which finally came alive, or the gloves, which kept Burnett in the game and the Yankees in the series.

It was Burnett, who came up with a big performance on a night in which he would have had every reason to come up small.

[+] EnlargeAJ Burnett
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireA.J. Burnett pitched like a man with nothing to lose, and didn't.

"I went into it like I could only do one thing, and that's turn it around," Burnett said. "I really didn't care what happened, walks, hits, whatever, I just wanted to get the ball back and throw it again. It was all focus and mindset. When I do that, I'm good."

As always, the obvious question for Burnett is, if it's really that simple, why can't he do it every five days?

"Good question," he said, meaning that he really has no idea.

But that is a matter to ponder at another time, perhaps five days from now if the Yankees win on Thursday and advance to the ALCS against the Texas Rangers.

It is not guaranteed, of course, that Burnett will be in the rotation for that one, either, but you've got to figure that he went a long way toward winning back his starting spot for the next round.

"I hope," he said. "I hope."

And to think that if not for a circus catch by Curtis Granderson, Burnett probably would not even have made it out of the first inning. By his own admission, Burnett came out amped, overthrowing his pitches, missing his spots not by inches but by feet, and walking three of the first five batters he faced.

At that point, pitching coach Larry Rothschild made the first of what figured to be many long, slow walks from the dugout to the pitcher's mound.

Girardi, who had said Burnett would be on "a very short leash" on this night, already had Cory Wade warming in the bullpen. If this got any worse, Burnett's night would be over, along with perhaps his team's playoff run.

"I knew it," Burnett said of the prospect of an early exit. "If it got out of hand, sure, I was coming out. This is an important game. If I wasn't getting it done, someone would have come in and gotten it done."

Then, a line drive off the bat of Don Kelly momentarily froze Granderson, who had to scramble frantically backward, the ball seemingly destined to go over his head and roll all the way to the center-field wall, 420 feet from home plate.

Had that happened, it might have been an inside-the-park grand slam, because Kelly can run. But at the last moment, Granderson's left arm shot up over his head and the ball disappeared into his glove.

"Sometimes you pick out a key out in the game," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "And I think the key out in this game happened in the very first inning."

What could have been disastrous for the Yankees instead turned out to be devastating for the Tigers. Burnett settled in and got through the second cleanly, on 10 pitches. He got through the third with just a walk.

"That definitely calmed his nerves a little bit," Nick Swisher said. "That, and us getting a couple of runs on the board early."

The Yankees took a 2-0 lead on a drive similar to Kelly's by Derek Jeter, one that Austin Jackson, who was in the trade for Granderson, couldn't catch. The double knocked in two runs and little did the Yankees know, nor would they have dared to believe, but that is all they would need.

Burnett had another A.J. moment in the fourth, surrendering a long leadoff home run to Victor Martinez, and a one-out double to Jhonny Peralta. Once again, action started in the Yankees' bullpen.

But then, Burnett had another sort of A.J. moment, a rarer variety -- he came back to break off a beautiful curveball to catch Alex Avila looking, and then put away Wilson Betemit on three pitches, the final one another curve that dove at Betemit's feet as he swung over the top of it.

"I think he made some serious adjustments today, especially after giving up the big home run to [Martinez]," Alex Rodriguez said. "There was a look about him today. There was poise about him. And his stuff was A.J. stuff, which is great."

He needed help from Granderson again in the sixth, after he was lifted with two out and a runner on first and replaced by Rafael Soriano. The first batter, Peralta, hit a sinking liner to left-center that appeared headed for the gap. But Granderson dove full length, caught the ball inches from the ground, and then slammed his chest into the turf.

"We don't win tonight without the defense," Burnett said.

Or, without Burnett.

Burnett acknowledged that he went out to the mound with a different attitude, an attitude of carefree confidence he had displayed at Monday night's pregame interview session and was somehow able to carry to the mound Tuesday night.

"It was a little nerve-wracking in the first inning, because I hadn't been out there in a while," said Burnett, whose only action since his last start, on Sept. 25, was a brief appearance in the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay, when he came out of the bullpen to strike out Russ Canzler.

"I think my one-batter outing really helped," he joked on Monday.

But it was clear that he had been disappointed and stung to be passed over for a playoff start for the second year in a row.

Still, his teammates expressed faith in him once it was announced that he would have to pitch one of these games after a rainstorm turned Game 1 into a two-day affair and disrupted the three-man rotation Girardi had intended to use.

And after the game had ended, there was no sense of I-Told-You-So in the Yankees clubhouse. More of a feeling of delighted relief that Burnett had finally lived up to his potential, even if for only one night.

"We know he's that good. There's a reason they gave him all that money to bring him over here," Swisher said. "I'm sure a lot of people had question marks about him, but nobody in here did."

"I was both excited and nervous," Burnett said of his pregame demeanor. "It was a big game and I knew it. These guys have been supportive of me all year, and I knew I couldn't let them down again."

The Yankees didn't really ask all that much of A.J. Burnett. They didn't ask him to save their season, simply extend it one more day.

And for once Burnett, the guy with nothing to lose, didn't.

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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