If momentum is the next day's starting pitcher, as Earl Weaver liked to say, then the Yankees went into Game Four of the AL Division Series against the Tigers with a distinct lack of it. Down 2-1 in the series and fresh off a loss in which they played their ace, CC Sabathia, the best the $200 million juggernaut could offer in a potential elimination game was A.J. Burnett. Though he helped the Yankees win a World Championship in 2009, the enigmatic and often frustrating $82.5 million righty has put up ERAs above 5.00 in each of the past two seasons while tying for fifth in the majors with 13 disaster starts (more runs than innings pitched). This wasn't how Joe Giradi had drawn it up; his initial plan was to use just three starers, with Sabathia returning for Game Four on three days' rest. Friday's suspended game scuttled those plans, and so this start loomed as an inevitability for four cliché-filled days.
For the first three months of the 2011 season, Burnett had pitched a whole lot more like the guy the Yankees thought they were getting when they signed him in December 2008 than the guy who so often let them down in 2010. Through 17 starts (eight quality) through the end of June, he posted a 4.05 ERA, good enough to get by. Just as the Yankees began to shuffle their rotation, bringing Phil Hughes and Bartolo Colon back from the disabled list and exiling Ivan Nova to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he began to falter, and by August, things were ugly. He went through a span of 12 starts without a single quality start, notching a 6.91 ERA in that span, and after a promising 11-strikeout showing against the Mariners on September 13, he was knocked out early by the Twins his next turn before mustering a reasonably strong showing against glassy-eyed Boston over the final weekend of the season.
On this night in Detroit, Burnett was far from a disaster. Helped by a spectacular play by center fielder Curtis Granderson—who had himself quite a homecoming—he summoned his best start in at least three months, holding the Tigers to one run over five and two-thirds innings. The Yankees broke the game open late, claimed a 10-1 win, and sent the series back to the Bronx.
As lopsided as the final score was, Burnett's early work had disaster written all over it, to the point that Girardi had Cory Wade up and throwing before he got out of the first inning. Overthrowing and struggling to get the feel of his curveball, he issued walks to leadoff hitter Austin Jackson, cleanup hitter Miguel Cabrera (the last two balls intentional), and number five hitter Victor Martinez to load the bases with two outs, setting up a short night. When number six hitter Don Kelly, playing right field instead of Magglio Ordonez, smoked a ball to deep center field, the Yankees appeared as though they might be ushered out in the first round for the first time since 2007, but Granderson made a running, leaping catch to haul in Kelly's drive and keep the Tigers scoreless.
Burnett didn't exactly cruise from that point, though after conferring with pitching coach Larry Rothschild between innings, he did settle down, retiring six of the next seven hitters on a total of 23 pitches. By that point, he enjoyed a 2-0 lead, as the Yankees broke through against Tigers starter Rick Porcello. In the top of the third, Jorge Posada was grazed by a pitch, Russell Martin followed with a single, and one out later, Derek Jeter drove a ball to deep center, just over Austin Jackson's head. Martin nearly ran up Posada's back on the way home and made an outstanding, headfirst hook slide around Alex Avila to avoid the tag.
Burnett got a key out to end the third. Delmon Young drew a two-out walk—a pitcher passing 3.9 per nine has to recruit some hackers to keep that rate up—but Burnett responded by getting ahead of Cabrera 0-2, and the slugger meekly grounded out to end the threat. The importance of that became clear when Victor Martinez crushed a 3-1 fastball right down Broadway for a solo homer to lead off the fourth. "A.J. gonna A.J." as the all-too-familiar refrain went on Twitter. One out later, Jhonny Peralta doubled to left field, and it looked as though the Yankees' luck with their wobbly starter had run out; Phil Hughes started warming up in the bullpen. Fortunately, the bottom of the order, Avila and Wilson Betemit, loomed as an escape hatch; a combined 0-for-16 to that point, they remained hitless for the series following a comebacker from the former and a strikeout from the latter.
The Yankees gave their starter more breathing room in the fifth. Consecutive singles by Martin and Brett Gardner were interrupted by the hiccup of a facepalm-worthy Jeter bunt straight back to Porcello along the strip of dirt connecting the mound to the plate; the pitcher alertly threw to Betemit at third to get the lead runner. As he'd done in the first, Granderson picked the Yankees up again, this time by roping a double to right, scoring Gardner. Porcello intentionally walked Cano to load the bases, challenging Rodriguez, to that point 0-for-2 on the night and an ugly 0-for-12 in the series, albeit with three walks and two RBI, neither of them trivial at the time. Porcello got ahead 0-2, but Rodriguez poked the next pitch to center, not deep enough to go out, but plenty far enough to plate the run and extend the Yankees' lead to 4-1.
At that point, it began to look like it was the Yankees' night, particularly when Burnett erased a leadoff single by Jackson with a double play. Again Burnett avoided having to face Cabrera with men on base when he got Young, good ol' hacktastic Delmon, to ground right back to him for a seven-pitch inning. Five innings of one-run ball with a three-run lead—that was as much as anyone might have dared hope for from Burnett. Girardi was playing with house money—and a largely rested bullpen—after that.
Nonetheless, extricating Burnett would be key. Cabrera led off the sixth by working the count to 3-2, then hit a sharp liner that Jeter speared. He retired Martinez on a grounder to short, but Kelly singled after getting ahead 2-0, and finally the call to the bullpen came. Girardi tabbed Rafael Soriano, who had gotten five outs on a total of 22 pitches the night before but had surrendered a homer to Young. His first pitch was tagged by Peralta, a potential double to left center field, but Granderson, in a play that topped even his first-inning grab, laid out in a full dive to catch the ball, holding onto it even as he knocked the wind out of himself. If you missed it, trust me, it will be on the highlight reel.
Porcello yielded to Phil Coke in the seventh. With the help of Dan Iassogna's high strike zone, the 22-year-old righty had notched five strikeouts for the night; tellingly, four of them were looking. While he'd kept the ball in the park and thrown first-pitch strikes to 17 out of the 26 hitters he faced, he gave up a pair of big doubles, each with two men on base—enough to put him on the short end.
Coke worked a scoreless seventh opposite Soriano, but Leyland left him in too long, and the Yankees broke the ballgame open in the eighth. Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher, a trio that had combined to go 3-for-39 to that point, hit consecutive singles, with the middle one an infield dribbler to third base that refused to roll foul. Faced with a lefty for the first time in this series, Girardi called upon the welcome sight of rookie Jesus Montero to bat for Posada. That triggered Leyland to counter with Al Alburquerque, who had yielded a grand slam to Cano in Game One; here he continued to make a hash of things, first by balking in a run, then by surrendering an RBI single to Montero and walking Martin. For the season, Alburquerque allowed just three out of 31 inherited runners to score; in this series, he has allowed five out of six.
The Yankees kept the line moving against lefty Daniel Schlereth, who like Coke, Jackson, and Game Three hero Max Scherzer came to the Tigers in the three-way Granderson deal. Suffice it to say that the trade continued to pay dividends for New York as Schlereth yielded a pair of singles and a wild pitch, running the score to 10-1. All that was left was to fill out the box score with the likes of Ryan Perry, Hughes, and Boone Logan.
And so the Yankees evened the series, reclaiming home field advantage and setting up a Game Five rematch between Ivan Nova and Doug Fister, who squared off on Saturday night once Game One resumed. Burnett found himself a little redemption, enough to know that if the Yankees advance, he’ll get another start, one that won’t have his manager or the team’s fans covering their eyes with quite the same level of fear. Tuesday night’s effort didn’t justify Burnett’s big money contract, but for the first time in a long time, the Yankees got something good for their money—good enough to extend their season for one more home game in the Bronx, at least.