Commentary

Burnett takes over a starring role

Right-hander steps to the forefront and blows away Phillies to even World Series

Originally Published: October 29, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- From the minute he signed his contract, he has always been That Other Yankees Free Agent, an $82.5 million best supporting actor.

But not on this night.

On this night, it was A.J. Burnett's turn. And no, not just to pitch.

To save the season.

As he headed for the mound on a crisp Thursday evening in October, he knew the stakes. CC Sabathia had lost Game 1 of this World Series the night before -- a development that conjured up the Yankees' worst postseason nightmare. And so, on this night, Burnett had no choice.

It was time to step outside of Sabathia's enormous shadow -- or else.

It was time to find a way to outduel Pedro Martinez, shut down the deepest, toughest lineup in the National League and win Game 2 -- or else.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
Howard Smith/US PresswireA.J. Burnett followed the Phillies' Cliff Lee's masterpiece with one of his own, thanks to a little inadvertent advice from Lee.

It was time, in other words, for A.J. Burnett to earn that ace-sized paycheck -- or else.

Well, what he did on this night was what $82.5 million pitchers do.

They give up four hits and one run, and strike out nine, in the most pressure-packed game they will pitch all year.

They hand the ball directly to the Greatest Closer Who Ever Lived, without having to pass it off to any of those messy, untrustworthy middle men in between.

They even up the World Series at a win apiece at a time when the alternative would have looked uglier than a Freddy Krueger Halloween costume.

And then, when it's all over, they heave the first gigantic gulp of air they have breathed in about three hours and begin to comprehend exactly what they've done.

"It wasn't pressure," Burnett insisted after the Yankees had beaten the Phillies 3-1 in Game 2 of the 2009 World Series. "I knew it was a big game. It's no lie. It was the biggest game I've ever thrown in for this team. But at the same time, you can't let that affect you. And I tried not to let it affect me."

Except that for A.J. Burnett, it has always been a lot easier to say that and to think that than it has ever been to actually do that.

He might be 32 years old. It might have been a whole decade since he first arrived in the big leagues. And no one has ever disputed that if you were just rating pure stuff, there might not be a half-dozen pitchers in baseball you'd take before him.

But for this man, it has never been about that. For years now, there has been only one major impediment blocking his road to greatness:

Himself.

For a decade now, the pattern has always seemed the same. He'd be out there, dominating, looking as if he was about to throw an 18-strikeout one-hitter, and then it would happen. Something. Anything.

Bad call. Cheap hit. Tough break. And all of a sudden, you could see the fire in his eyeballs, and the frustration in his body language, and the vacation his mind had just departed on. And one thing would lead to another thing. One run would lead to five runs. And before he could gather up the snowball, the avalanche had already engulfed him.

When it happens, said his regular catcher, Jose Molina, "Everybody sees it. When he starts walking people and he starts losing [his focus], you notice right away. The thing is, you can't tell him too much stuff because then he's really going to lose it, and you don't want that from your pitcher."

We have seen that version of A.J. Burnett a hundred times. But on the biggest night of his life, that isn't the guy we saw.

On this night, the Phillies' Jimmy Rollins said, "this was a big game -- and he was big for them."

And the tipoff came early, when Burnett kicked off his momentous evening by throwing a first-pitch strike to the first 11 Phillies he faced. Yeah, 11.

"And that's not like him," Rollins said. "That was, like, wow, he's on."

Yeah, Burnett was on, all right. He gave up one early second-inning run -- on a Raul Ibanez looper off the chalk in left and a Matt Stairs RBI single that Alex Rodriguez should have caught, or at least knocked down.

But after that, this man was everything the Yankees needed him to be on a night when a whole season's work was on the line.

When he needed to make a big pitch, he made it. He had Ryan Howard staring him in the eyeballs with two on and two outs in the third -- and struck him out on a cliff-diving 2-and-2 curveball. Two innings later, it was Rollins and Shane Victorino heading for the plate after a one-out Carlos Ruiz double. Then down went Rollins on an unhittable full-count breaking ball. And down went Victorino, popping up an exploding first-pitch fastball.

"Here's the thing about A.J.," Molina said. "A.J. doesn't throw 90 [mph]. He throws 95-96. When a pitcher can do that, you have to start early if you want to hit him. So the breaking ball becomes a better weapon. And it was a weapon [in Game 2]."

But it can't be the weapon it's supposed to be unless Burnett allows himself to weaponize it. And the only way he can allow himself to roll out his full artillery is by displaying the rare sense of control he displayed on the mound at Yankee Stadium.

So where did that cool come from? You won't believe this one. Afterward, Burnett traipsed to the interview room and admitted his secret.

The man who had delivered the message he most needed to hear before this game happened to be a man who played for (ready for this?) THE TEAM HE WAS PITCHING AGAINST.

That man was a gentleman named Cliff Lee, the same Cliff Lee whose 10-strikeout, no-walk Game 1 masterpiece for the Phillies had gotten the Yankees into this mess in the first place. Not that Lee even knew he was doing it at the time, you understand. But after the game Wednesday night, Burnett said, he was strolling through the clubhouse kitchen when he heard Lee being interviewed on the field -- and decided to stop and listen.

"Actually, I sat and watched his interview … and he talked about confidence," Burnett said. "And he talked about belief in his stuff. And all I told myself [Wednesday] night and [Thursday] was the same thing. I went out [in Game 2] with confidence and … the game just rolled by."

The Phillies tried their best to disrupt him, with the same tricks they'd been using for the last decade, the same tricks that had caused Burnett to go 5-8, with a 4.75 ERA, against them before this game. They tried stepping out. They tried taking pitches. They tried dancing and juking off first base.

"

Dobbs "A.J. doesn't throw 90 [mph]. He throws 95-96. When a pitcher can do that, you have to start early if you want to hit him. So the breaking ball becomes a better weapon. And it was a weapon [in Game 2]."

" -- Yankees catcher Jose Molina

"We tried," Rollins said. "But he never got outside himself [Thursday]. And that's very unusual."

Nevertheless, the Phillies did grab that early lead on him. And the Phillies did get five of their first 14 hitters on base against him. So when the fifth of those baserunners, Jayson Werth, led off the fourth inning with a single, there was still no way of knowing for sure whether Burnett was going to maintain his newfound sense of calm forever.

Then, however, he caught the pivotal break that seemed to turn around his entire evening. He buried an 0-and-2 breaking ball in the dirt. Molina lurched and blocked it, as Werth danced off first, then stopped. But faster than you could say "Nick Punto," Molina swooped up the baseball, laser-beamed it to first base and picked Werth off. Huge out.

"By the time I saw the ball," Werth said later, "it was on its way to first base."

"I got lucky," Molina said. "And he got too far off the base."

But however it happened, this game was never the same. Burnett faced 12 hitters after that. Only one reached base. And the Yankees' offense finally awoke from its World Series coma, mugged Martinez for solo homers by Mark Teixeira and Hideki Matsui, and put together a formula that allowed this team to win a game it absolutely, positively had to win.

No, the World Series wouldn't have been over if the Yankees had gone down 2-0 with the next three games scheduled for that ballpark down the Turnpike. But the 24 previous teams that lost the first two games at home in any best-of-seven postseason series went a not-real-inspirational 3-21 in those series. Get the picture?

So, Derek Jeter said, "This was a big win for us."

It isn't often, incidentally, that you'll see the Yankees win a postseason baseball game, or any kind of baseball game, when Jeter strikes out three times. But they did that in this game.

"Thanks for reminding me," Jeter said with a laugh. "But you know what? I don't care. I'd strike out three times every day if we win."

Well, there's a pretty fair chance that's one superstition he won't have to worry about keeping if the Yankees just follow the rest of the formula they followed in Game 2 -- seven spectacular innings by their starting pitcher, followed by the latest, greatest six-out postseason save in the increasingly remarkable life of the one, the only, Mariano Rivera.

This was the 14th six-out save by Rivera in a postseason game since he became the closer in 1996. That's three more than all the other closers in baseball combined since then, by the way. And it's 11 -- right, 11 -- more than the next-closest reliever of that era, the Phillies' Brad Lidge.

But "To me," Rivera said, coolly, "it's a save, period. My arm feels good. And you can't expect, after [that loss in Game 1], to just sit and wait until there's just one inning. You have to do what you have to do."

Hey, no kidding. So the Yankees did what they have always done -- place their fate in Rivera's hands.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
AP Photo/David J. Phillip Trouble usually finds A.J. Burnett. It never located him, though, in Game 2 against the Phillies.

It did take him 40 pitches to do what he had to do on this night. It also took one gigantic eighth-inning double-play ball off the bat of Chase Utley, a fellow with only four GIDPs all year.

But it got done. And afterward, Rivera didn't want the credit. As always.

"Everything," he said, "starts with the starter."

On Saturday in Game 3, that will be the winningest postseason starter of all time -- Andy Pettitte. But on this night, the story was a little different because, on this night, the Yankees' starter was a guy who had never won a postseason game in his life. Until now.

All Burnett got out of his first two starts this October was a couple of no-decisions. And six years ago, when the Marlins went to the World Series, he was recovering from elbow surgery. So he never got to join that party.

But finally, all these years later, this was his show. So he remembered to breathe in and breathe out -- in that order. He remembered to stay calm when he needed to stay calm. He remembered to stay confident in his live right arm, just the way Lee did in his left arm.

And when he was through tying up the World Series, Burnett looked back on his night's work and announced: "Nothing compares to today. That was the funnest time I've ever had on the baseball field."

Meanwhile, that Yankees team that employs him never had a funner time watching an $82.5 million pitcher give it the feeling, all of a sudden, that this just might have been the shrewdest 82½ million bucks it had ever spent.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com