Burnett Shines; Game 5 To Decide

There are a million reasons to love the game of baseball. The timelessness, the artistry, the one on one confrontation between a batter and a pitcher, the careful choreography of a defense when turning a double play, and the suicide squeeze. The list could go on and on, but the one unique thing that Baseball offers its fan is the ability to share a connection to its players. The pace of the game along with the individual exposure of each player over the course of a season allows fans to feel as if they know the players they root for. This connection allows players such as Jeter, Pujols, and Halladay transcend the sport and into the consciousness of society. The connection also has a downside; it can sometimes turn against a player. A.J. Burnett, amongst a few Yankees, knows exactly how that feels.

Burnett has always been the most scrutinized Yankee since he signed the 5 year $82.5 million deal. All of that scrutiny has to do with his salary as Burnett has always been that high-potential, low-consistency pitcher. If not for the overvalued contract, Burnett would likely be accepted as an average pitcher who can pitch well for periods of time. But, that salary has led to Burnett being the unwanted Yankee pitcher; the one pitcher who fans don’t want to see on the mound. Because of the game one rainout, Burnett was forced into making a start.

There as an impending sense of doom as Burnett walked to the mound to start the bottom of the first inning. The Yankee season hung in the balance with their most inconsistent, and for a time during the season, their worst starting pitcher. Although Burnett had pitched well during his last start of the regular season, many did not expect Burnett to be capable of pitching in the moment. Whenever there has been a scintilla of expectations placed on Burnett, he seemed to pitch poorly. In August, during the real pennant race, Burnett posted an ERA over 11. In truth, the dominant A.J. Burnett never really showed up this season. There were good stretches, but they were far from the dominance he has shown in the past. There seemed to be absolutely no hope that Burnett would be able to keep the Yankees in the game.

But, this is A.J. Burnett we are talking about. Expectations and Burnett don’t usually meet.

This time, Burnett gave the Yankees exactly what they needed. He didn’t give up a hit until the fourth. He limited the damage in a potentially disastrous fourth inning, a type of disastrous inning that has plagued Burnett all season. It started to look that way after Burnett walked Austin Jackson, Miguel Cabrera, and Victory Martinez. He wiggled out of that jam and would allow just one baserunner in the second and third innings, another walk. He would give up a solo homerun to Victor Martinez in the top of the fourth and a double later in the inning, but Burnett once again got out of trouble, cutting off the potential disaster inning. It is a trademark that he has been missing throughout this regular season.

In all, Burnett gave the Yankees 5.2 innings and allowed 4 hits, 1 run, 4 walks, and struck out  3 batters. It doesn’t look all that dominant, but considering his tough first inning and the fact that he induced 10 groundball outs, Burnett really limited the Tigers in the Yankees’ most important game. ”I told you that his stuff is so good that he could shut you down. We smoked the ball early when he wasn’t sharp early, but he threw well,” said Jim Leyland.  Yankees Manager Joe Girardi has been the guy who had to take the ball from Burnett when things weren’t going well this season. There have been some heated exchanges by the dejected Burnett. This time there was no exchange. Burnett did his job. “I was proud of what he did. In the biggest game of the year, he had his best outing of the season,” said Girardi.

For Burnett, it obviously was a big start. Typically humble, Burnett credited his teammates. ”It’s big. Like I said, we don’t win tonight without defense. Curtis, the way Al (Alex Rodriguez) played third,” stated Burnett. But, it was more than just his teammates. Burnett was able to shake off a shaky first inning and pitch like the number two pitcher the Yankees had envisioned. ”Maybe it took me just 25 to 30 (pitches) to get loose. I was able to find a rhythm after the first. It was pretty nerve-wracking at first. I hadn’t been out there in a while.” Once he settled in, he gave the Yankees more than they had expected.

But, Burnett has been in these spots before. It’s easy to forget his 2009 World Series performance. ”A.J. has pitched some big games for us in the past. He came in confident and relaxed. He deserves a lot of credit. He’s the reason why we get to play again,” said Derek Jeter.

Another aspect of Baseball’s beauty is that it allows for redemption. With so many games, players often get their second chances. Burnett has been much maligned all season. Game four allowed him to completely erase the negative from his 2011 season. He won the game that saved the Yankees season and allow them to play another game.

While the story is Burnett, the Yankees’ were saved by their MVP candidate Curtis Granderson. Burnett was shaky in the first inning. Don Kelly ripped a line drive to centerfield. Granderson made one of the more spectacular catches to save the inning. Had that bases loaded hit fallen, Burnett is likely out of the game and the Yankees are behind 3-0 before the end of the first inning. ”It’s funny, sometimes you pick a key out in a game. I thought it was in the first inning when Donnie Kelly smoked the ball and Granderson makes that play,” said Leyland. Girardi at first thought that Kelly’s hit would be caught. Then, he got worried. ”I thought that it was going to be an out and then it kept carrying and carrying. Curtis made two great plays tonight. If he doesn’t make that play (in the first inning), it could’ve been a different game,” said Girardi.

Granderson’s defensive heroics were backed by the awakening of the Yankees’ offense. Rick Porcello matched Burnett with zeroes in the first two innings, but Derek Jeter doubled over Austin Jackson’s head to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead by scoring Jorge Posada and Russell Martin. Those two runs seemed to relax the Yankees. Porcello held them in check in the fourth, but the Yankees finally began to hit in the fifth inning. Martin and Gardner both singled to start the inning. After a force out on a Jeter bunt attempt, Granderson doubled in Gardner. Alex Rodriguez would follow a Robinson Cano walk with a sacrifice fly to give the Yankees a 4-1 lead. Porcello would give the Tigers six solid innings, allowing 4 runs on 5 hits, 1 walk, and 5 strikeouts. Phil Coke would come on to pitch a scoreless seventh, but would be left in to start the 8th.

The Yankees bats woke up in the 8th inning. Alex Rodriguez got his first hit of the series to leadoff the inning. 11 more batters would follow as the Yankees would batter the Tigers’ bullpen for 6 runs on 7 hits in the 8th inning. Rodriguez would add another hit in the inning to finish the night 2 for 4 with an RBI. Rookie catcher Jesus Montero would pinch hit for Posada during the inning and get his first career post season hit. He would add another hit in the 9th. Boone Logan would close out the 10-1 Yankees victory to force a final game five at Yankee Stadium on Thursday night. It will be a rematch of game one relievers Doug Fister and Ivan Nova.

Heading into the series, both teams looked even. Even Jim Leyland isn’t surprised to be returning to the Bronx. ”It doesn’t surprise me that this series is going five games. It’s not surprise,” said Leyland.

Many will try, but projecting a single baseball game is nearly impossible. Many take Ivan Nova as a given for the Yankees because of his stellar season and equally stellar performance in game one. But, he is a rookie and will be pitching in the most pressure filled game of his career. Doug Fister had an ugly final line in game one–4.2 innings, 7 hits, 6 runs, 6 strikeouts–but, he has been the Tigers’ second best pitcher since coming to Detroit. Both bullpens are rested. Both can throw any one of their starters in relief. With these two teams, a win or go home game will provide dramatics and great performances. There are far too many stars on the field from Miguel Cabrera to Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Victor Martinez, and Curtis Granderson. Justin Verlander and C.C. Sabathia could play a role. It is a star studded game. It looks to be the best that Baseball has to offer.

As for Burnett, he walks out of Comerica Park the winning pitcher in the 2011 Yankees’ most important game to date. For that, there is a bit of redemption. Even the Yankees captain sees this. ”Trust me, I am sure New York fans will remember this game more than any other game,” stated Jeter.

A redemption story followed by a decisive game 5, two of the millions of reasons to love Baseball.