The unexpected hero is the true essence of any great postseason narrative. And heroes don't come much more unexpected than Burnett (despite his heroic, $82.5 million salary). After all, the man wasn't even supposed to start an ALDS game. But thanks to Friday's rotation-altering washout, Burnett got the ball on Tuesday night and the much-maligned pitcher came up huge for New York in a 10-1 win over the Tigers that was close until the Yankees unleashed a six-run eighth inning. Facing nationwide skepticism entering this potential elimination game, Burnett allowed just one earned run over 5 2/3 innings, sending the series back to the Bronx for a winner-takes-all Game 5 on Thursday night.
"In a must-win situation for us, he pitched one of his best games of the year," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, before later adding: "I've said all along, A.J. has pitched some great games for us in the playoffs."
Girardi is right. Sort of. Burnett has pitched some great postseason games. Prior to Tuesday night, Burnett had started six times in the postseason for the Yanks. Three were great and three, well, not so much. His best one came in Game 2 of the 2009 World Series, when he went seven innings and struck out nine -- both personal postseason bests -- against the Phillies to help the Yankees even the series. Since that championship season, though, Burnett has struggled mightily, posting ERAs of 5.26 in 2010 and 5.15 this year, drawing the ire of Yankees supporters and the incendiary ink of New York tabloids. So Tuesday night's return to form had to be extra sweet for the 34-year-old, 13-year veteran.
Though he certainly didn't pour his heart out when asked about personal gratification in the postgame.
"Well, I mean, it's big," Burnett simply replied, before immediately heaping credit on his defense.
Derek Jeter, though, shed some light on the situation.
"A.J. expects a lot out of himself. He's hard on himself, which I think is good at times," the Yankees captain said. "Today, you couldn't ask for him to do anything more."
Of course, Burnett's night didn't start in heroic fashion. In the opening frame, Burnett simply couldn't find the plate, loading the bases on three walks (one intentional). Sure, there were two outs at that point, but given Burnett's erratic nature, doom hung thick in the early evening air. The Yankee bullpen sprung into action, pitching coach Larry Rothschild strolled out to the mound and the press box peanut gallery unleashed a chorus of Burnett-related zingers. Don Kelly proceeded to lace a line drive to deep centerfield and it briefly appeared that the Tigers would move one big step closer to eliminating New York with an early 3-0 advantage.
But that brings us to the night's second hero: former Tigers fan favorite Curtis Granderson.
Kelly's line drive initially froze Granderson, but the Yankees centefielder took a few steps back and leaped high into the air to barely snag the whistling baseball. Instead of an early three-run deficit, the Yankees got out of the inning unscathed. Truly a game-changing play by the Yankees' MVP candidate. And one that didn't surprise Jeter.
"I think he's made that catch against me here when he played for Detroit," Jeter said. "So he's very familiar with this ballpark, but that was a very, very important part of the game."
Following a high-stress opening inning, Yankees catcher Russell Martin knew exactly what to do to help Burnett, and it wasn't anything verbal.
"I didn't have to say anything to him. I gave him a little neck message and then he went back to work," Martin said. "Gave him a little rub-down, like a boxer in his corner."
Burnett responded like a champ, cruising through the next two innings while the Yankees' offense got a pair of runs off Detroit's Rick Porcello. Burnett pounded the strike zone to get ahead of Tigers hitters, and then unleashed his signature curveball to great effect.
"He was aggressive with all his pitches, and that's the key for him," Martin said. "When he gets ahead of hitters, it makes life a lot easier for him."
Tigers DH Victor Martinez led off the fourth with a majestic blast into the right field stands, but Burnett refused to come unhinged like he's done so many times in the past, limiting the damage to a single run.
"I told you, his stuff is so good that he can shut you down," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said in perfect Jim Leyland matter-of-factness.
By the time the sixth inning rolled around, New York had built its lead to 4-1. Burnett retired the first two hitters he faced, but then Kelly smacked a single into rightfield. Clearly scarred by past Burnett unravelings, Girardi opted for a quick hook, calling for Rafael Soriano out of the bullpen to face Jhonny Peralta. The Tigers resurgent slugger tried to drop a ball into the left-center field gap, but there was that man again. Granderson tracked the ball off Peralta's bat, ran a great distance and then went airborne, Superman-style, before snagging the ball in full extension. The highlight-reel play ended the inning, staving off a potential two-out rally.
"He went all-out on that and it was an incredible catch," Porcello said of his former teammate. "He's obviously having a heck of a year and that's why he is who he is."
A second extraordinary save by Granderson, and the book was closed on A.J. Burnett: 5 2/3 innings, four hits, four walks, three strikeouts and one earned run. The beleaguered hurler handed the Yankees a 4-1 lead that eventually bloated to 10-1 due to shoddy work from the Tigers' 'pen.
"He pitched huge when we need him the most," Jeter said. "A.J. deserves all the credit. He shut down a tough team over there. He's the reason we get an opportunity to play on Thursday."
The Game 5 pitching matchup is quite enticing, despite lacking true star power: Ivan Nova vs. Doug Fister.
Nova, a 24-year-old rookie, provided New York with some unexpected consistency in the rotation behind CC Sabathia in his first full major league season. Although he doesn't overpower hitters, his regular-seeason results are impressive: 16-4, 3.70 ERA. And Nova turned in a fine effort in his first postseason outing, holding the Tigers to two runs over 6 1/3 innings for a rain-delayed Game 1 win. Nova hasn't lost a decision since June 3 -- an impressive 17-start run.
Fister, meanwhile, was an absolute revelation after coming over from the Mariners in a deadline trade. In 11 regular-season games (10 starts) for the Tigers, Fister went 8-1 with 1.79 ERA and an otherworldly 57-to-5 strikeout-to-walk rate. But Fister struggled in his first postseason appearance on Saturday night, allowing six runs over just 4 2/3 innings of work. The 6-foot-8 righty was actually cruising along for a bit, retiring 11 Yankees in a row at one point, but the deep New York lineup eventually got to him. Fister left with the bases loaded in the sixth, and Robinson Cano immediately proceeded to put the game on ice with a grand slam off Al Alburquerque.
One game for the right to take on the defending American League champion Rangers. Texas quietly took care of business out west during the regular season, and then extinguished a red-hot Rays team in four games. With a stable of quality young arms and an exceedingly deep lineup, this is an imposing Rangers bunch. But obviously the Yankees and Tigers would both jump at the opportunity.
And the action resumes on one of baseball's biggest stages.
"Yankee Stadium," Leyland said, "it's going to be hopping."