"The key for A.J. -- if he gets in a little pickle -- is getting out of it, and getting out of it quickly," manager Joe Girardi had said, and Burnett did that, especially in the top of the third when the Rangers scored two runs on just one hit -- an infield single at that -- but didn't score any more in an inning that also included a walk, a wild pitch and a hit batsman.
"The other thing you look for with A.J. is strike one," Girardi had said, "because A.J. is the type of guy that can expand the zone with the depth of his breaking ball, and that's important."
In his 97-pitch outing, Burnett threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of the 25 batters he'd faced, a good ratio, and that control afforded him a 3-2 lead on the Rangers in Game 4 of the ALCS.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, Burnett threw 99 pitches on Tuesday night.
It was the 98th that did in both Burnett and his club. It was a 92-mph fastball, thrown on the level of Bengie Molina's considerable belt with two outs in the top of the sixth inning -- another first-pitch strike, 18 of 26. Molina had mustered only a single in his five regular-season at-bats against Burnett, and another single in the top of the fifth, but this pitch was not only belt-high but on the inside half of the plate, and Molina turned on it and drove it down the left-field line and into the stunned stands. He drove in not only himself, but also Nelson Cruz and David Murphy (the latter of whom had been intentionally walked on pitch No. 97) too, and the Rangers led 5-3.
Pitch No. 99 was also a first-pitch strike -- 19 of 27, Girardi couldn't have hoped for better -- and Mitch Moreland swung at it and fouled out to third. But the damage had already been done, and a fine outing from Burnett, in many ways his best in a long while, had been ruined, and all he had to show for it was a deceivingly ugly bottom line (five earned runs in six innings).
Once Burnett came out, the Rangers piled on, as they have in each of their three wins in the series, in the seventh, turning a tense 5-3 lead into a relatively comfortable 7-3 one, and then in the ninth, turning it into a 10-3 laugher.
Texas outmatched the Yankees in essentially the same way they have in every inning of the ALCS, with the exception of a single half-inning way back in Game 1. They keep hitting home runs -- four of them tonight (including two more from Josh Hamilton, giving the presumptive AL MVP four in four games) -- and have hit 15 in the postseason, and at least one in each of their nine playoff games. During the regular season, their longest streak of games with a home run was six.
They also keep receiving effective pitching. While starter Tommy Hunter was only middling on Tuesday (3 1/3 innings, five hits, three runs), long-relief man Derek Holland was brilliant -- he allowed a single hit in 3 2/3 innings -- and maligned middle relievers Darren O'Day, Clay Rapada and Darren Oliver managed to close things out from there, holding the Yankees scoreless even in an eighth inning in which they'd loaded the bases with one out. Tuesday night's handful of mild umpiring-related controversies -- a fan possibly interfered with Rangers rightfielder Nelson Cruz on Robinson Cano's scoring-opening bottom-of-the-second home run (though it would probably have been a home run regardless), then two batters later the umps properly disallowed a home run by Lance Berkman after reviewing the videotape -- only seemed to distract from the overall narrative. Which is that you don't even have to take away the top of the eighth in Game 1 -- as some like to, in order to prove a point -- to demonstrate how significantly and thoroughly Texas has dominated New York through this series' first four games.
Even including that half-inning, the Rangers have outscored the Yankees 30-11, their team ERA is 2.75 to the Yankees' 7.71, and they have five regulars hitting over .300 in the series while the Yankees have only one -- Cano, who is batting .467 and suddenly seems the only Yankee who represents a real threat every time he steps to the plate.
The series is due to resume in New York on Wednesday afternoon, just under 16 hours after this most recent crushing Rangers win concluded.
"For this team to win three games in a row is not beyond the realm of possibility," said Berkman in a quiet Yankees clubhouse.
And indeed it is not. Even though Mark Teixeira seems to have been lost for the rest of the postseason due to a hamstring injury ("It really doesn't look very good," Girardi said of the injury Teixeira suffered while running to first in the bottom of the fifth), the Yankees' starters are all on regular rest now, as was the goal, and CC Sabathia should in theory be able to outpitch C.J. Wilson on Wednesday (even if he hasn't, this postseason, in practice), sparking a potential comeback.
But with the Yankees about to play their fifth game of an ALCS, it is certainly something of a surprise, and telling too, that the best that one of their players can do is to suggest that it's "not beyond the realm of possibility" that they might win it.