Baseball can be a cruel sport. The beauty and grace of a 162 regular season schedule can come down to a bounce or two of ugliness in the playoffs. In the Yankees’ case, the beauty and grace was crippled by Mother Nature with the game one rainout. The Yankees are a flawed team. They have been a flawed team since the beginning of Spring Training. But, those flaws were overcome by good hitting, good defense, and a stellar bullpen. The starting pitching has been a problem that was masked by the performances of Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia. League average results can get a great team into the playoffs.
Playoff Baseball is a completely different set of circumstances. Pitching takes priority and in most cases, 6 innings and 4 runs will not be enough to win. The Yankees were hoping to repeat their 2009 plan of using just three starters and allowing their ace C.C. Sabathia to make two starts in a 5 game series. But, Mother Nature had different plans with the game one rainout. Sabathia would only get to pitch one game, a game three match up with Justin Verlander. Now, the Yankees would have to reach beyond their third starter. They reached to the one pitcher they’ve been trying to avoid all year.
For all of the records, the future Hall of Famers, and for all of the 97 wins, the single most important game of the Yankees season comes down to Allan James Burnett.
A.J. Burnett has been a source of frustration for both the Yankees and their fans with his inconsistent performance since he came to New York in 2009. At times, Burnett looks like one of the most dominant starters in the game. At other times, he looks like he barely belongs in a Major League rotation. It has been that way for most of Burnett’s career as his potential had never really caught up to his results. The word potential is thrown around quite a bit in Baseball circles. It is usually reserved for young, unproven talent with a lot of tools. But, that word has followed Burnett into his 30′s. His tools always leave us wanting more.
The source of frustration stems from the trademark Burnett inconsistency. Has has never, in any of his 13 seasons, put it all together for a complete season. The Marlins stuck with him through injuries because the young right hander could reach into the upper 90′s. Once he learned some control and how to be consistent, the Marlins would have an ace. He never really fulfilled his promise in Florida, but Toronto decided they could harness that potential and gave him $55 million over 4 seasons. He showed glimpses and seemed to have, at the very least, learned how to stay healthy from Roy Halladay. The Yankees decided that his half season of dominance in 2008 was enough to give him a five year, $82.5 million deal. Potential can make you do some crazy things, not to mention spend an insane amount of money.
For the past two seasons, Burnett hasn’t been all that inconsistent. He’s had streaks of quality performances, but his poor performance streak has gone on for longer stretches. That has resulted in a two year record of 21-26 with a 5.20 ERA in 65 starts. The lone positive is that Burnett has been able to make all of his starts and give the Yankees close to 200 innings each season. But, with declining stuff, Burnett’s good performances have been less dominant. He began the season with a 4-1 record with a 3.86 ERA in his first 6 starts. He gave close to league average results over his next 16 starts, but fell into a funk in late July and for the entire month of August. In 5 August starts, Burnett would allow 44 hits in 22.2 innings. His 11.91 ERA would ordinarily be grounds for dismissal. But, the Yankees continue to stick with their enigmatic right hander.
The potential, however, is always there. Even now. As poor as Burnett has pitched this season, his final start of the season is one that left everyone wondering if he was about to go on his trademark hot streak. Against a desperate Red Sox team, Burnett hurled 7.2 innings while allowing 5 hits, 2 runs, 2 walks, and 6 strikeouts. It is that type of performance that keeps getting Burnett the ball. He is capable of shutting down an offense. Even with the diminished stuff, Burnett can still be an average pitcher. At 34 years old, he still has the potential to do that.
The Yankees are pinning their hopes on the latter version of AJ Burnett; they have no choice That version throws strikes, has a ton of movement, and misses bats. The other version gives up 7 runs in 4.1 innings on 13 hits. The latter Burnett tries, but his inconsistency forces him to put more pitches close to the strike zone. The Yankee season essentially comes down to a flip of the coin. Yankees Manager Joe Girardi is outwardly optimistic. He has to be. ”I feel good about what A.J. is going to do for us,” said Girardi.
The Yankees are here for a variety of reasons. The Tigers have outplayed them in most facets of the game. Rain did alter their plans and also impact the preparation for their ace. Sabathia looked to be laboring after starting on 3 days rest, even if Girardi didn’t see it that way. ”It was a small strike zone tonight,” said Girardi. Sabathia fought through some wildness and his lack of put away stuff to keep the game close. Sabathia pitched into the 6th inning, but allowed 7 hits and 6 walks along with 4 runs. It could have been worse considering all of the baserunners. Sabathia was able to get out of most trouble.
The Yankees do credit for getting 4 runs off of Justin Verlander. He started slow with many of his first inning pitches up in the strike zone. The Yankees grabbed two quick runs in the first, but Verlander gradually began to settle in. Consistently hitting 100 MPH and up on the radar gun, Verlander was overpowering. He pitched 8 innings, allowed 6 hits, 4 runs, 3 walks, and struck out 11 batters. ”Obviously, when you throw 100, the changeup will be effective,” said Girardi of Verlander. “He was terrific. There was a couple of times he got over-amped and probably tried to go for a strikeout, but he got through it. He was terrific,” said Tigers Manager Jim Leyland.
The Yankees evened the game in the 7th, but Delmon Young hit a solo homerun off of an otherwise dominant Rafael Soriano. That would prove to be enough for the Tigers to take control of the series. “This team has a never say die attititude. We come from behind. Top to bottom, we can hurt you,” said Justin Verlander.
Now, it all leads to A.J. Burnett. The Yankees most enigmatic starter now has the big say on the result of the 2011 Yankees’ season and this series. Burnett has the potential to dominate the Tigers’ lineup. He also has the potential to be the pitcher that he was in August. An elimination game is always stressful. It just makes it more fun that one team won’t know what they are getting from their starting pitcher. Joe Girardi will have a quick hook with Burnett. The win or go home atmosphere won’t allow him to be patient and wait for some of Burnett’s potential.
Burnett enters this start with minimal expectations. In fact, few believe he will pitch well in this moment. That is how far Burnett has fallen. With those kinds of expectations, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Burnett throw well because that’s what he does. He confounds us every time he takes the mound and has a way of surprising. A positive start would be unexpected. It would be so like A.J. Burnett to do that.