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A.J. Burnett’s Clutch Pitching Carries Yankees in ALDS Game 4

The Yankees congratulate A.J. Burnett as he walks off the mound in the sixth inning of the ALDS on Tuesday night. (Paul Sancaya/AP Photo)

I ate my words Tuesday night, and they were delicious. Defying the expectations of fans and media alike, A.J. Burnett pitched 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball, propelling the Yankees to a 10-1 victory over the Tigers in Game 4 of the ALDS. With the exception of his struggles in the first inning, Burnett was nasty, notching three strike outs and allowing just four hits.

Firing on All Cylinders

In that first frame, Burnett walked the leadoff man, Austin Jackson, on a full count. After that, he was able to induce a pop up and a ground out, which moved Jackson to third (he had stolen second). Burnett intentionally walked the dangerous Miguel Cabrera, and unintentionally walked the next hitter, Victor Martinez.

With the bases loaded, Don Kelly hit a line drive to center field that momentarily froze Curtis Granderson. However, in his first of two spectacular defensive plays, the center fielder leapt backwards to catch the ball. He later said that he couldn’t tell if it was going to drop in front of him and that it carried more than he had expected. Joe Girardi, Jim Leyland, Burnett and several other players pointed to that catch as the most pivotal play of the game. Had the ball gone over Granderson’s head, at least three Tiger runs would have scored and Girardi would have likely replaced his pitcher.

After escaping the first, Burnett found his location; he threw aggressively and walked just one until he was relieved in the sixth inning. During the postgame, Burnett admitted to being a little nervous in the beginning and joked: “Maybe it just took me 25 to 30 to get loose.” In total, he threw 81 pitches, 49 for strikes.

According to catcher Russell Martin, the keys to Burnett’s success were throwing first pitch strikes, getting strikes on his breaking ball, and tricking hitters into swinging at his off-speed stuff. He had his full arsenal working and held the Tigers to 0-7 with runners in scoring position.

Tigers’ starter Rick Porcello got off to a strong start as well, throwing two 1-2-3 frames. In the third, he hit Jorge Posada and Martin followed with a single to center. With two outs, Derek Jeter hit an RBI double that went over the center fielder’s head. Both base runners scored, with Martin making a smart, athletic slide to the outside of the plate in order to avoid Alex Avila’s tag. Once again in this series, the Bombers’ were able to produce some crucial two-out hits.

Burnett’s only blemish came in the fourth inning. To lead off, Martinez hit a solo home run to right field, bringing the Tigers within one. After Kelly grounded out, Jhonny Peralta doubled and later moved to third on a wild pitch. Historically, Burnett has tended to unravel when he gives up a run or gets into a tough situation; however, in Game 4, he was able to escape the inning by striking out two.

The Yankees’ next burst of offense came in the fifth, when Granderson doubled to bring Brett Gardner home and Jeter to third. The Tigers intentionally walked Robinson Cano to load the bases, and Alex Rodriguez hit a sacrifice fly, making the score 4-1 Yankees. This was A-Rod’s third RBI of the ALDS, but he was still yet to get a hit. That would change in the eighth inning.

Girardi decided to pull Burnett in the sixth with two outs and one man on. He received warm congratulations from his teammates on the mound. According to the manager: “We were all excited for him and very proud of what he did.”

Rafael Soriano came in to get the final out of the inning. Cue Granderson’s second potentially game-saving catch. Peralta hit a hard drive to the left-center gap. Granderson, playing the odds, was positioned in right center. Both he and Gardner ran toward the ball, and Grandy laid out and dove to make the catch. It was undoubtedly one of the best defensive plays of the season.

After the game, Granderson said he landed so hard that he “ended up knocking the wind out of myself.” The center fielder also mentioned: “I think I saw one sign that said, ‘Detroit Still Loves Curtis,’ so that was a good thing.” Tigers’ fans sure don’t love Curtis after Wednesday’s game.

The Bombers scored six runs in the eighth inning, started by a lead-off single from A-Rod, his first hit of the series. Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher also singled, loading the bases. Before Game 4, these three had been hitting a combined 3 for their last 39.

Leyland brought in Al Albuquerque with the bases loaded, who promptly balked, scoring Rodriguez. Despite the fact that Posada is hitting .500 and has walked four times this ALDS, Girardi opted to pinch hit youngster Jesus Montero for him. Montero singled, his first postseason hit, and Teix scored. The 21-year-old, who many see as the next homegrown Yankee superstar, would notch one more hit in the game. After a Martin walked on four pitches, Gardner singled and Chris Dickerson, running for Swisher, came home, giving the Yanks a seven-run lead.

Leyland then brought in Daniel Schlereth, who threw a wild pitch, which allowed Montero to come home. The Yankees scored their tenth run on a single by Cano, which scored Martin. While Granderson and Burnett were the game’s obvious heroes, Martin was certainly the unsung hero. He blocked numerous pitches in the dirt, scored a key run sliding into the plate and went 2-4 on the night.

Rodriguez got one more hit in the eighth before Teix finally put the Tigers’ relievers out of their misery with a pop up.

Girardi’s initial plan was to use the bulletproof combination of David Robertson and Mariano Rivera for the eighth and ninth innings, respectively. However, the Yankees’ six-run eighth changed his game plan. Instead, Phil Hughes threw a scoreless eighth and Boone Logan tossed a scoreless ninth.

Burnett is Redeemed

Postgame, the Yankees’ Captain said:

“It doesn’t make a difference what you’ve done in the past. Every opportunity, especially in the postseason, every opportunity you play, you have an opportunity to do something good. He [Burnett] was able to do that … Trust me, I’m pretty sure all New York fans will remember this game as opposed to some of the other games.”

A.J. Burnett had an inconsistent year, to say the least. He ended the regular season 11-11 with a 5.15 ERA. In August, the man who was signed as the Bombers’ number two starter notched just one win and had an 11.91 ERA. Many people, myself included, questioned why Burnett was still a member of the Yankees’ rotation. He clearly wasn’t living up to his $16.5 million per year contract and was the worst of the Bombers’ six starters.

Despite his improved numbers in September—he won two and had a 4.30 ERA—Burnett made the postseason roster as a reliever, not a starter. However, following Friday’s suspended Game 1, Girardi was forced into a four-man rotation for the ALDS.

He chose Burnett because of the pitcher’s previous postseason success, including Game 2 of the 2009 World Series. Before this game, the manager, the team, and Burnett himself were confident that he could deliver. They were right. “He’s the reason why we get an opportunity to play on Thursday,” said Jeter.

Despite saving his team from elimination, Burnett appeared the most humble he’s been all year in the postgame press conference. While the players credited Burnett  for the victory, the pitcher insisted,”We don’t win that game tonight without defense.” He also acknowledged his manager: “Joe’s had my back after all my ups and downs.”

According to Girardi himself, “I was thrilled for him but I was thrilled for us too.”

No Way, Jose!

After winning Game 2, Tigers’ closer Jose Valverde declared, “They have a good team, but the series is not [coming] back to New York.” In fact, the ALDS will return to the concrete jungle on Thursday for Game 5, with the momentum having shifted back toward the home team.

“Today we had tremendous energy from the batting practice through the game for 27 outs,” said A-Rod on Tuesday. “Every guy was on their feet, cheering everybody on.” The Bombers’ are hoping to carry that feeling back to Yankee Stadium, as Detroit’s Doug Fister and New York’s Ivan Nova take the mound.

After Tuesday’s game, the ever-confident Nova described to Kim Jones his approach to the final ALDS contest: “I don’t usually get nervous. I just have fun.” He also mentioned that he texted Burnett similar advice on Monday night.

“It’s been working for me,” noted the young pitcher. “It’s gotta be working for him, too.” Good call, rookie.

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  1. New Post: A.J. Burnett’s Clutch Pitching Carries Yankees in ALDS Game 4 http://t.co/LP63V3Jo

    Posted by Sports of New York | October 5, 2011, 7:05 pm

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