It took A.J. Burnett exactly six pitches to walk his first batter tonight. Larry Rothschild went to the mound after five hitters, Cory Wade was throwing in the bullpen before the third out, and the only thing that let Burnett escape the first inning was a leaping, falling catch by Curtis Granderson.
That was the beginning of Burnett’s biggest start of the year, a game that saved the Yankees season and salvaged some of Burnett’s.
“That’s A.J.,” Russell Martin said. “He wasn’t that erratic. That’s just how A.J. is, really. I didn’t have to say anything to him. I gave him a little neck message, and he went back to work … Gave him a little rubdown, sort of like a boxer in his corner.”
It was occasionally a high-wire act, but like Martin said, that’s A.J. He walked four and gave up four hits, but he also gave the Yankees 5.2 innings on a night they gladly would have accepted four. After Wade got loose in the first inning, the Yankees didn’t have to use a reliever until the sixth.
“A lot of times, for starters, that first inning is the toughest inning to get through, and you kind of get your feet wet,” Joe Girardi said. ” He hadn’t started a game in a while, in about eight or nine days. But he got through it, and then he pitched really well.
“… I was proud of what he did. In a must-win situation for us, he pitched one of his best games of the year. I’ve said all along, the Tigers swing the bat. To be able to shut them down, he gave up the one solo homer and gave up a double and proceeded to get out of that inning. We were all excited for him and very proud of what he did.”
For Burnett it was redemption. No one rips A.J. Burnett quite like A.J. Burnett, and even tonight he was a little bit hard on himself — said he should have pitched deeper, gave the defense a ton of credit — but he also stuck with his mantra of staying positive.
“Maybe it took me 25 to 30 (pitches) to get loose,” he said. “Maybe. I don’t know. I was just letting it go, and if it didn’t go for a strike, it didn’t go. I wasn’t worried about it. I got the ball and was able to do it again. I was able to find somewhat of a rhythm after that. It was a little nerve-racking in the first. I hadn’t been out there in a while.”
The Yankees didn’t plan to have him out there this time, but Friday’s rain forced their hand, and Burnett forced a winner-take-all Game 5. It started out nearly as bad as the Yankees could have imagined, but on night of redemption and second chances, Burnett got it going and kept the Yankees alive.
“I knew I was overthrowing, but I wasn’t going to think about it,” he said. “When you think about it, that’s when it goes more south… I wasn’t going to let little things bother me. I didn’t care if I walked eight, whatever. How many hits, how many homers you give up, I was just going to get the ball back and let it fly. I took that approach tonight, and it worked.”
• Burnett said it more than once, and it was true every time: “We don’t win tonight without defense.” A double play, Derek Jeter snagging a line drive, a few nice plays by Alex Rodriguez and — of course — Curtis Granderson’s pair of run-saving catches in center field.
• Granderson said it was his second catch, the Superman dive into left-center, that was the more difficult of the two. “Because of the distance I had to go,” he said. “The first one, I didn’t have to move too far, but I did have to freeze on it. It does make that play very difficult. Once you end up on your heals, now it’s hard to go ahead and generate some speed. For the second on, to have to go as far as I did and then to have to leave my feet like that, the good thing I thought if I do miss that one, Gardner is there. For the first one, if I miss that one, there’s nothing there but the wall back there and some ivy.”
• No surprise, but Girardi committed to Ivan Nova absolutely getting the start on Thursday.
• Girardi also said CC Sabathia will be in the bullpen on Thursday. “I plan on him being available to us,” Girardi said.
• With Cory Wade up in the first inning, Girardi said he was fully prepared to make a move that early. “I can’t tell you that I was going to take him out, I can’t tell you I was going to leave him in,” Girardi said. “But I had the guy up in case that first inning got away from us a little bit.”
• Girardi wasn’t sure what he would have done if there were another base runner after Jhonny Peralta’s double in the fourth inning. “Very possible I make a change there, yes,” Girardi said. Burnett struck out the next two batters and stayed in the game.
• How wild was that first inning? Girardi said he thought it was Wade he had getting loose, but he wasn’t sure. After all that happened tonight, he was perfectly willing to believe it was Phil Hughes.
• Speaking of Hughes, he finally got in a game with a scoreless eighth inning. Jesus Montero also saw his first division series action with two hits, including a pinch-hit RBI single in his first career postseason at-bat.
• Alex Rodriguez got his first two hits of the division series. They both came in that six-run eighth when struggling Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher also had hits. “I said our guys are having decent at-bats,” Girardi said. “They have a pretty good pitching staff here. There was a lot of talk about it. I talked about Adrian Beltre today. It doesn’t take much for a guy to be a huge impact. I thought Al had a huge RBI after getting down 0-2 in the count, I thought that was a big RBI.”
• Jeter on his two-run double that put the Yankees on the board: “I actually thought he caught it. After seeing the replay, the ball bounced right back up to him, and he bare-handed it. From my vantage point, all I saw was his back. That’s why I stopped at second. I thought he had caught it and that was double play. Austin has run down a few of my fly balls over the years. But fortunately for us, that one fell in.”
• Two more hits for Brett Gardner who’s having a nice series. His batting average is up to .385 in these first four games.
• We’ll give the Captain the final word tonight: “We enjoy playing at home,” Jeter said. “If you are going to win a championship, you have to play well at home, you have to play well on the road. We were fortunate to get a split here and bring it back to New York on Thursday. I’m pretty sure our fans will be vocal, excited and so will the Tigers. It’s going to be a challenge for us. Hopefully we can win one more game.”
Associated Press photos