DETROIT — All the accumulated faith of every living New York Yankees fan in A.J. Burnett’s ability to beat the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday night could have fit in the back pocket of Burnett’s gray uniform pants. In three short years with the Yankees he had gone from an $82.5 million workhorse to a maddening Jekyll-and-Hyde act to a disgraced bullpen exile to the last person anyone in pinstripes wanted to see on the mound in Game 4 of the American League Division Series.
But by the end of Burnett’s night — an end that came deeper into the game, two outs into the sixth inning, than anyone could have reasonably hoped — his infielders were gathered around him on the Comerica Park mound, pounding his chest with their gloves, and even as his manager held one hand out for the ball, he was slapping Burnett on the back with the other.
And so, it was Burnett, the unlikeliest of October heroes, who rescued the Yankees’ season, delivering 5 2 / 3 solid innings in a 10-1 victory over the Tigers, which evened the best-of-five series at 2 games apiece and sent it back to the Bronx for Thursday night’s decisive Game 5.
On an unseasonably mild night, Burnett, a 34-year-old right-hander, gave up just one run, departing with a 4-1 lead then watching contentedly from the Yankees’ dugout as his teammates blew the game open with a six-run eighth inning against the Tigers’ leaky bullpen.
“Would you trust your season to this man?” asked the back page of The New York Post on Tuesday morning, over a picture of Burnett.
The Yankees had stashed Burnett in their bullpen, to be used only in case of emergency. The emergency, of course, came — in the form of a rain-necessitated suspension that made Game 1 a two-day affair and upended Manager Joe Girardi’s pitching plans. With no choice but to start Burnett in Game 4, the Yankees professed their faith in him — a hollow claim that was discredited when they had their bullpen warming up five batters into the game.
That first inning alone for Burnett included three walks (one of them intentional), one mound visit from the pitching coach, and one halting, running, leaping, falling, inning-ending, bases-loaded catch by center fielder Curtis Granderson on Don Kelly’s lined smash. Had the Tigers not gift-wrapped a crucial out for Burnett earlier in the inning — when Ramon Santiago inexplicably bunted after Austin Jackson drew a leadoff walk, then popped up the bunt to boot — Burnett may not have made it out of the inning at all.
“I can’t tell you I was going to take him out. I can’t tell you I was going to leave him in,” Girardi said of Burnett’s first inning. “But I had the [bullpen] up in case that first inning got away from us a little bit.”
But with the first inning behind him, Burnett kept strolling out of the Yankees’ dugout, inning after inning, weighted down by a pair of thick necklaces, a chaw of tobacco the size of a golf ball and the hopes of his nervous franchise. He gave the Yankees 17 outs, a deal they would have gladly taken if offered at the outset. A solo homer by Detroit’s Victor Martinez in the bottom of the fourth, which briefly trimmed the Yankees’ lead to 2-1, wound up as the only blemish on Burnett’s ledger.
“Maybe it took me 25 to 30 [pitches] to get loose,” Burnett said. “It was a little nerve-racking in the first. I hadn’t been out there in a while.”
Burnett, in fact, outpitched his Detroit counterpart, right-hander Rick Porcello, who became the youngest pitcher ever to start a postseason game for the Tigers. Porcello lasted one out longer than Burnett, but was touched for four earned runs, with Derek Jeter’s two-run double in the third inning the biggest blow.
“A.J. deserves all the credit,” Jeter said. “He’s the reason we get an opportunity to play on Thursday.”
Girardi finally pulled Burnett in favor of reliever Rafael Soriano with two outs in the sixth, after a single by Kelly, pausing a moment at the mound to tell Burnett how proud he was of him.
“In a must-win situation, he pitched one of his best games of the year,” Girardi said. “We were all excited for him and very proud of what he did.”
Burnett’s exit set the stage for the defensive highlight of the night — a spectacular, all-out, diving catch in shallow center field by Granderson, robbing Jhonny Peralta of a hit. On a night where there was little reason to expect it, the Yankees played one of their most thorough, crisp games in weeks, full of tight defense, clutch hitting and stellar pitching.
Further down the road, the Yankees can consider the implications of the redemptive performance by Burnett, who is still under contract to them for three more seasons. Will he get the ball again this postseason, if the Yankees advance? Can he earn his way back into the franchise’s good graces by next April?
But for now, all that matters is what is immediate: Burnett has kept the Yankees’ season alive, and he has made his case to all the doubters and the haters that, no matter what they think of him, there is still meaningful baseball to be delivered from his right arm.