Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A.J. Burnett Comes to the Yankees' Rescue


When he ran down, pulled back and leaped near the warning track, and then made a retreating, sensational catch with the bases loaded and two outs in the first inning, Curtis Granderson not only saved the Yankees but saved the derided A.J. Burnett.

Had the ball flown over Granderson's head it could have finished as the worst baseball game in franchise history, and by the end of the night, the Yankees would have faced much scrutiny. Now, it seems, Burnett saved the Yankees season, throwing 81 pitches on a beautiful night at Comerica Park.

The expectations were largely an element and, if there were ever anything less than a phenomenal performance, Burnett would've been ridiculed and bashers all over the urban cities in New York would've talked badly about him in Time Square or on the subway ride to the workplace.

The creativity from the local tabloids would've had comical headlines with photos of Burnett dropping his head helplessly, and each newspaper would've been at the nearest newsstand. But all the ineptitude that came from the disappointment, inconsistencies and even the point when he was mentally baffled for nearly every start was erased when Burnett probably rescued the Yankees from forever being described as the worst ballclub to ever fail built with so much talent.

The theory behind the Yankees is that the Steinbrenners are the wealthiest owners in baseball, and inherits the highest player's payroll in Major League Baseball, squandering millions to bring together a repertoire of high-profile pitchers and sluggers. If the Yankees lose in the postseason, and denied a World Series appearance, then the season is considered a failure.

It's certain Burnett would've been considered a pathetic bust had he not pitched consistently as the Yankees were on the brink of elimination. So meanwhile, he's the hero and so is his outfielder Granderson, who contributed with his amazing defense. It may not be the equivalent to the team's batting power, but Burnett certainly may have saved the Yankees season.

When it was all over, the Yanks thrashed Detroit in a 10-1 romp. They can sigh relief and live on another day, keeping postseason hopes alive and traveling back to New York tied 2-2 for Game 5 of this fascinating division series on Thursday. The rookie sensation Ivan Nova, called on for the biggest game of his life with the burden of heavy pressure, is set to pitch against Tigers' Doug Fister.

Everyone, as we know by now, thought Burnett was done forever but he stunned the world with an amazing performance. The population in New York had given up on Burnett for a reservoir of misfortune and inferiority over the last two seasons with his pitching woes, and his $82.5 million contract that had almost went to waste.

Before he came alive at perfect timing, he transformed into -- after all -- from an overpaid athlete to otherworldly hero. It was at one point that he used to just collect a large paycheck, and was evidently comfortable underperforming for a franchise that makes an effort to capture perfection and world championships each season if possible.

It's about time that he delights and not disappoint fans in New York and helps baseball's most storied franchise win games, particularly in a series where the season was over had the Yankees lost to the Tigers. Against Detroit, he never toppled, he never stayed on the mound too long and he never gave up a bevy of hits in a single inning that could have turned it into a nightmare for Burnett.

Through it all, he survived 5-2/3 innings and gave up one run Tuesday night. And then, for once, he wasn't pressured and seemed composed and, early on, Burnett forced hitters into pop outs and groundouts. When it comes to Burnett, he's never been a strikeout pitcher, and has always relied on the defense to bail him out of jammed innings or the toughest situations, and nobody is asking him to strike out hitters.

If there's one way to pacify people, he can't pitch inconsistently and need a stronger effort. Because the Yankees are obligated to pay Burnett $16.5 million yearly through 2013, it was hard for the most hated baseball team to cut him loose. And even though he struggled and had a poorly awful ERA, Joe Girardi juggled his rotation and wasn't hesitant giving Burnett the start with much at stake.

There's no need to talk about his horrible 5.15 ERA that killed him during the season. At long last, he delivered and came to his team's aid when it was truly needed in order to keep all the World Series dreams alive, at least for another game. For once, however, he wasn't taking more criticism and instead he was being praised after a redemptive tale may have restored aplomb as New Yorkers probably trust in Burnett, more confident that he can prevail in the critical moments and get it done for the Yankees.

He's managed to throw his breaking ball that almost turned the night into a disaster by his first inning mortality, but eventually he began to release the breaking ball effectively. It almost felt as if he was getting ready to give the game away, with another hellish inning to go down as the worst pitcher in Yankees history. It felt like that in the first inning, and it was a pattern everybody was accustomed to seeing.

So early on, he walked leadoff hitter Austin Jackson, and then Burnett stayed with the breaking ball, although with two outs Jackson stood on third and Girardi ordered Burnett to intentionally walk Miguel Cabrera. When he faced the next hitter, which was Victor Martinez, he walked him as well. It seemed like his night was over.

It was time to summon Cory Wade from the bullpen, but Burnett finished the first inning without giving up a run, after Don Kelly drilled a line drive that drifted to center field, where Granderson misjudged the ball and took a step in and then turned and stepped back.

On a play where the ball almost went over his head, he leaped and extended his glove to catch the ball that ended the inning. Had the ball dropped back at the wall, the play would have given the Tigers a 4-0 lead and Burnett would have been criticized for blowing it.

When it was all said and done, Burnett, 34, had redeemed himself of his prior failures. The thing is, nobody believed in him. The actions spoke louder than words. And Burnett certainly brought the action.