By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 2:31 AM
NEW YORK -- When you play for the Yankees and they give you the really big money because you've got the talent to match the deal, there are nights, usually right here in the Bronx, when the city measures you by its simple tough-guy standards: thumbs up or thumbs down.
When the pinstripe season is hanging by a thread and you've fallen from favor, when the boos, the tabloid mockery and the rust of 19 days without being trusted to throw a pitch all arrive together, can you still deliver the win the Yankees are paying for?
This is your life, A.J. Burnett.
What happened to Burnett in Yankee Stadium in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series shouldn't happen to a bad guy, much less a perfectly nice one. He pitched exactly the find of game he needed to find a kind of semi-redemption. Almost.
For nearly six innings, Burnett led 3-2 and seemed to be on the verge of a solid start that might pull the Yankees even at two games apiece in this battle for a pennant. With just one more out to go in the sixth, Burnett looked like he was on the verge of escaping a unique Yankee stigma: the rich pitcher who just doesn't have the right stuff, at least not to be a Yankee.
But he never made it. That one crucial out, that one good pitch never arrived. Instead, a blast off the bat of Bengie Molina soared into the left field bleachers for a three-run homer and a 5-3 Texas lead. Then, thanks in part to two late-game home runs by Texas star Josh Hamilton, who's the only current corollary to Mickey Mantle, the Rangers waltzed to a their third straight one-sided beating of the Yanks, this time 10-3 after their previous 7-2 and 8-0 thumpings.
"We liked the way A.J. was throwing the ball all night," said Yankees Manager Joe Girardi, who ordered an intentional walk to David Murphy to get to Molina. "You think about the first two runs that he gave up -- he walked a guy, hit a guy and they ended up scoring on a groundball and an infield hit. But he was throwing the ball good and we decided to leave him in.
"We liked the matchup -- A.J. against Molina. Unfortunately, it didn't work out."
Now, the Yankees trail this ALCS three games to one and must, to avoid elimination, face the Rangers' three best pitchers -- C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis and Cliff Lee. How's that working out so far? The trio has held the Yanks to 14 hits and just five runs in 20 2/3 innings while fanning 23 men.
Since the Rangers are the former Washington Senators, 39 years removed, lets get all the "Damn Yankees" references to Joe Hardy, Lola and the devil out of the way at one time, shall we? Okay, that's it. No more of 'em. That was pretty painless, wasn't it?
No Ranger has sold his soul. Texas has just completely outplayed the Yankees, whose starting pitching hasn't been remotely close to pennant quality. Except for a five-run, eighth-inning Yankees rally in Game 1, this ALCS would already be over in a Texas sweep.
Do the Yankees look old? With Derek Jeter, 36; Jorge Posada, 39; Alex Rodriguez, 35; Mariano Rivera, 40; and Andy Pettitte, 38; are you kidding? They're just one more loss away from being issued canes. And Mark Teixeira said he heard his right hamstring "pop" as he collapsed running to first base. So, he's gone, too.
Meanwhile, the Rangers have the left-handers to stifle New York's lopsided power lineup: Lee, Wilson and four lefty relievers, including Derek Holland, who worked 3 2/3 innings of shutout middle relief to get this victory.
"We like being considered the underdog going into people's places," Holland said. "We want to be able to show that there's no such thing as home-field advantage."
"We came here, we are supposed to lose," Molina said. "So, let's go out there and have fun, see what happens."
A mountain of "no fun" is quickly piling up on top of the Yankees. For two straight nights their fans have absolutely abandoned them before their last turn at bat, leaving the Big Ballpark almost 90 percent empty. It's an unthinkable, unworthy sight. If the Yankees are coming up small, their fans are invisible. When the unfaithful get this annoyed, scapegoats will be found.
Some may say that CC Sabathia's postseason history remains less than mediocre after allowing 41 runs in 71 1/3 innings in 11 career starts. Or you could pick on Phil Hughes, who looked scared in his drubbing in Texas. But after only one full year as a Yankee starter, he'll get a pass. So will the Noble Pettitte. That leaves A.J.
In a town that parses every shred of Yankee lore, and in a franchise where blame is mother's milk, you can bet A.J. will fit right into a long Yankee tradition of expensive pitchers who got hurt, failed in the clutch or were poor clubhouse influences. Or, in a few cases, met all three standards.
Ken Holtzman; Don Gullett; Doyle Alexander; Ed Whitson, who broke Billy Martin's arm in a brawl in Baltimore; Kenny Rogers; Hideki Irabu; Kevin Brown; Carl Pavano; Javier Vazquez; Jeff Weaver; Kei Igawa; and Jose Contreras. Now, add poor Burnett, who never guessed how much $82.5-million could cost.
Don't judge him too quickly. Those threatening-looking sleeved out tattoos on his arms are misdirection, covering up a bit of insecurity, creating a Halloween mask every day of the season on the mound. A better measure of him was his sense of humor here this week. When asked why he was late for a news conference, he said he was out buying zombie hands and vampire teeth for his kids.
For the most part, Burnett was just fine on Tuesday night. But then he almost always is, even in his worst starts -- and in his 10 worst games this season, he permitted an amazing 70 runs.
Burnett is the flawed suspension bridge of pitchers; everything looks perfect until, suddenly, the central span collapses. Nobody ever sees the crack until it's too late.
The Rangers' sixth inning seemed so innocent. On a deep fly to center for the second out of the inning, Cruz tagged up and reached second base with a headfirst slide. Burnett, up to 93 pitches, was one out away from a nice quality start. The staff works the seventh. Mariano can get the last six outs if needed. So close, in theory.
Then Girardi got to thinking. Why not walk the lefty Murphy, who has right field porch power, to get to Molina, the No. 8 hitter?
It seemed like a good idea at the time. ... But it was disaster. Burnett's first pitch to Molina swung this ALCS from "Texas has a chance" to "the Rangers are probably going to the World Series."
Burnett tried to run a four-seam fastball in on Molina's hands. This year, Molina had only five homers. But he has power, and as a catcher, knows how to guess pitches, especially those he can blast. When his brother Yadier hit an important homer in the '06 NLCS, Bengie was on his couch at home yelling at the TV, "Sit on the change-up, please, just sit on the change-up."
Bengie sat on the fastball. And squashed it. It was only fair by a couple of yards, but long gone, just like Burnett's hopes.
The Yankee crowd fell mute. A.J. got the last out of the inning then trudged to the dugout. If he'd waved, you'd probably have seen zombie hands; if he'd grimaced, perhaps vampire teeth.
Remember: don't hate the player, hate the game. Especially this time.