Don Kelly lined the ball to center field, ash connecting solidly with cowhide, a high screamer headed toward Curtis Granderson. The Yankees center fielder hesitated, took a step in ... and Yankees fans saw two years of misery and distress flash before their eyes.
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I don't think any major league player has been as maligned and criticized the past two seasons as A.J. Burnett. Fans have treated Burnett like a comic foil, because that's what fans do these days. Blind allegiance to your team, your players, no longer exists, certainly not in a city like New York, where losing or mediocrity is not tolerated. The media jumps all over every bad Burnett start, demands to know what went wrong, why he isn't racking up wins and strikeouts.
The fact is, A.J. Burnett has been only a slightly above average pitcher during his career for the most part, although announcers and talk radio jockeys still talk about his great stuff, even if he doesn't throw nearly as hard as he once did. His arm has nearly 2,000 innings of major league wear and tear on it, plus a Tommy John surgery. Part of the perception problem, of course, resides with his contract; Burnett didn't have to sign with the Yankees for $82.5 million back when he the left the Blue Jays, but he did and that creates certain expectations. When he signed with the Yankees his career ERA was 3.81, much of that compiled with the Marlins in a terrific park for pitchers. The contract made him one of the highest-paid pitchers in the game; at $16.5 million, he was the seventh-highest paid pitcher for 2011.
Burnett had a bad season in 2010. He had a bad season in 2011. He doesn't throw strikes consistently, but he threw 25 wild pitches this year -- the third-most in a season since 1920 -- and gave up 31 home runs. Needless to say, Yankee fans were not optimistic about his start in Game 4 against the Tigers.
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Granderson, of course, leaped up and behind him at the last second to haul in Kelly's drive. His initial misstep turned a difficult play into an extraordinary one, but it may be the play that saved the Yankees' season. What happens if the ball bounds off his glove?
Instead, the Tigers had left the bases stranded. Another few inches, and Kelly's liner goes over Granderson's head. Considering the distance to the center-field wall at Comerica Park and Kelly's speed, it's a three-run triple or possibly an inside-the-park home run.
Burnett had thrown 21 pitches and walked three batters in the first inning. But he had survived. The Yankees had survived. (And Jim Leyland may look back with regret at having Ramon Santiago bunt after Burnett had walked Austin Jackson to lead off the inning.)
Burnett settled down and, other than a Victor Martinez home run, lasted 5 2/3 innings unscathed. His curveball was catching the outside corner, the Tigers hitters were surprisingly aggressive, and Yankees fans were rooting for a guy they spent all season loathing. Meanwhile, the Yankees slowly and predictably pecked away at Rick Porcello, a pitcher who allowed a .321 average to left-handers this season. When Porcello gets his sinker down he can be effective, but he hasn't done that enough this season and certainly not on this night. The Yankees have too many lefties and switch-hitters for a guy like Porcello, who left too many pitches up in the zone. He battled for six innings, the game got ugly with the Yankees winning 10-1 and now we're headed back to the Bronx for Game 5.
The Yankees have to rate the edge. They have home-field advantage, Ivan Nova versus Doug Fister looks fairly even on paper, but the big edge is in the bullpen, where David Robertson and Mariano Rivera will be completely rested, having thrown just 1.1 innings between them in the series. Tigers leadoff man Jackson is hitting .083 and catcher Alex Avila, eighth in the AL in OPS during the regular season, is hitless. Even Alex Rodriguez snapped out of his funk with a base hit.
The best thing about all this? We can thank A.J. Burnett for getting us to a Game 5. There's nothing more exciting than all-hands-on-deck, do-or-die baseball. It's only the second division series since 2006 to go the distance. Get ready for anything. We won't see Burnett again this series, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see Justin Verlander at some point, trying to push the Tigers season one step further.