DETROIT -- The Yankees have played 165 times so far this season, and finally, on Tuesday, they face their first, and perhaps only, must-win game.
And A.J. Burnett must win it.
That is not nearly as dire as it sounds.
And it's not even entirely accurate.
Because as frightening as it might appear to have a playoff series, and in fact an entire season, come down to the right arm of a man who less than a week ago was deemed unfit by his manager to start any of the games of this American League Division Series, in truth A.J. Burnett is in the best possible position.
For one of the few times in his life, it is impossible for Burnett to disappoint. All he really can do is pleasantly surprise. And maybe even shock and amaze.
And as Mark Teixeira said, "The weight of the world isn't on his shoulders; it's on ours."
In Tuesday night's Game 4, the win-or-walk game, the burden is squarely on the hitters.
And if the Yankees' high-octane lineup can't put up enough runs to chase Rick Porcello and get into the Tigers' bullpen, don't blame A.J. Burnett.
That has to be a tremendous load off the mind of a pitcher whose mind gets in the way of his pitching far too often.
Because in this one, even though the Yankees can lose it all in one game, A.J. has everything to gain.
With one big effort, he can wipe out two years of bad performances. He can make everyone forget about the $82.5 million contract and the fact that it still runs for two more years.
He can buy himself a lot of equity in this town, with the toughest, most unforgiving fan base in sports, simply by pitching the Yankees into Thursday.
And really, there's very little pressure on him because it's hard to find anyone who believes he can do it.
"I've been proving people wrong my whole career, it seems like," a loose, good-natured Burnett said in the interview room before Game 3. "People are entitled to their opinion, and obviously I give them reasons here and there to doubt me. But I have confidence in myself. I'm not going to go out and try to prove anything. I'm going to try to win a ballgame."
The truth is, there's not a Yankees fan in the United States who feels confident about Burnett's chances to win this game, and if you spiked the water in the Yankees' clubhouse with truth serum, probably more than a few of his teammates would feel the same way.
But I have a hunch Burnett is going to cross us up again, the way he crossed up the Yankees and especially GM Brian Cashman, who signed him to be their No. 2 starter only to have him become their No. 1 headache.
Burnett has to realize no one will be terribly disappointed if he crashes and burns on the mound at Comerica Field on Tuesday night, because that is what nearly everyone expects him to do. And it is what his regular-season history tells you he will do.
In a bizarre way, that might free up Burnett to pitch the way he is capable of pitching but so rarely does.
"I think it's a good spot for him because he's just gonna go out there and leave it all out," Russell Martin said. "He's a high-energy pitcher, and I think the adrenaline's gonna help him."
What would also help is if the Yankees' lineup did what it is capable of against Porcello.
You can give the Yankees something of a pass for Monday night, facing a beast like Justin Verlander, who still was hitting 100 mph with his fastball in the eighth inning of Game 3, which the Tigers won 5-4 to push the Yankees to the brink of winter vacation.
But still, the offense had its chances, especially in the first inning, when it appeared Verlander could be had. Derek Jeter shot Verlander's first pitch of the night right back at him and into center field for a leadoff single, and three pitches later, Curtis Granderson clubbed a triple over Austin Jackson's head and the Yankees had a run.
But then, the big, shiny, $200 million hitting machine stalled. Robinson Cano swung through a triple-digit heater. Alex Rodriguez, who now is 0-for-10 in this series, couldn't even get a grounder past a drawn-in infield. His dribbler to shortstop brought a run home, but a golden opportunity was lost.
Meanwhile, Sabathia, battling his command and the unusually tight strike zone of plate umpire Gerry Davis, gave the lead back in the third and couldn't get out of the sixth inning. He left the game after 5 1/3 innings, his team trailing 4-2, and even though the Yankees battled back to tie the game on a clutch two-run double by Brett Gardner off Verlander in the seventh, all it took was one pitch in the wrong spot from Rafael Soriano for Delmon Young to hit his second home run of the ALDS and provide Detroit with its slim margin of victory.
The game ended frustratingly, with the Tigers' numerically perfect but maddeningly erratic closer, Jose Valverde, blowing a fastball past Jeter with two runners on.
Again, you can forgive a team for losing to Verlander -- and four runs is a pretty good night's work against the certain AL Cy Young Award winner and possible MVP -- but there will be no excuse to lose to Porcello.
Not even with A.J. Burnett on the mound.
Although he beat New York in their one and only meeting this season, working seven innings of two-run ball here on May 5, Porcello's career record against the Yankees is 2-2 with a 5.56 ERA. This season, left-handed hitters batted .321 against him. If ever there was a night for Cano and Teixeira and Jorge Posada to come up big, this would be it.
So, too, A-Rod, who continues to insist his swing is "about to come around," seemingly unmindful that he might have only one more game in which to do it. And Jeter, who although he had two hits off Verlander on Monday night, is hitting .267 for the series and has struck out six times, including in the kind of spot in which he formerly thrived.
Those are the ones who have to play up to their contracts, not Burnett. It's too late for that. Now, he just has to pitch one decent game that gives the Yankees' hitters a chance to do what they're supposed to do.
"It's the perfect scenario for A.J.," Posada said. "Our job is to get him some runs early so he can go out and pitch his game."
"A.J. has it in him," Rodriguez said. "We saw him do it in '09 and we saw him do it at times this year. His stuff has been really good lately. Now we've just got to score."
In the one and only truly important game for the Yankees this season, the ball might be in A.J. Burnett's hand, but the burden is on their shoulders.