Commentary

Series now rests in Burnett's hands

Girardi's decision not to bring in Rivera in Game 3 leaves Yankees in tough spot

Updated: October 19, 2010, 1:08 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

You want to second-guess Joe Girardi?

Then start in the top of the ninth inning, when he chose to send in the clowns rather than Mariano Rivera, and quickly turned one of the all-time great postseason pitching duels into a silent-movie pie fight.

And that's also where you can stop.

It is a legitimate point that the New York Yankees would have had a much better chance of pulling out a 2-0 game even with Cliff Lee, who had already thrown 122 pitches, on the mound than trying to win an 8-0 game against anyone in the Texas Rangers' bullpen.

That's where you can poke the manager, if you want to, for the predicament the Yankees find themselves in on Tuesday night, down 2-1 and relying on A.J. Burnett to get them even.

But you can't second-guess him on using Burnett, because as I have been writing all week long, on this one, he really has no choice.

After the Yankees got blitzed in Game 3, it was the first question Girardi faced at the postgame media conference and the only one anyone really wanted to hear the answer to.

He answered it with one word: "Yes.''

And the follow-up, "Was that at all a thought process for you?'' was swatted away just as quickly.

"No,'' said the manager.

As for Burnett, he didn't say a word, brushing off reporters as he left the clubhouse.

They both know what you and I must come to accept: That Burnett is the best choice to start Game 4, because he is the only choice.

If you bring back CC Sabathia on short rest, you run the real risk of having the Rangers take a commanding 3-1 lead -- and now, needing Burnett to ward off elimination.

So that's not an option.

Nor is skipping him altogether, because then you must use the rest of the rotation on short rest, and Sabathia might even have to come back a third time, in Game 7, and face a fully-rested Lee.

And I ran into El Duque himself, Orlando Hernandez, who pitched a crucial Game 4 for the Yankees when the trailed in an ALCS against Cleveland a dozen years ago, pulling them out of the hole and into the World Series.

"Can you pitch tomorrow night?'' I asked him.

"No way, man,'' he said, laughing.

So that's out, too.

[+] EnlargeJoe Girardi
AP Photo/Kathy WillensIs Joe Girardi making the right choice by starting A.J. Burnett in Game 4? We'll find out soon enough.
Yes, incredible as it may seem, after $210 million, 95 regular-season games won and a divison series sweep that right now looks more like a mirage, any hope the Yankees have of advancing to the World Series lies firmly in the right hand of Burnett.

You're just going to have to take a deep breath, swallow hard and accept that.

Because if the Yankees don't find a way to win Game 4, they face the daunting prospect of having to do something they, nor anyone else, have never done in the postseason, and that is beat Cliff Lee. In a Game 7. In Arlington, no less.

So it's pretty much win on Tuesday or bust, and as unfathomable as it may seem, A.J. Burnett gives them the best chance to do that.

But what about Game 2? What do we make of the manager's decision not to lock things down at 2-0 and take his chances with Lee, who surely would have come out to at least start the ninth, in favor of waving the white flag with Boone Logan, David Robertson and finally Sergio Mitre?

Keeping Rivera in your bullpen at a time like that, in a game like this, is like keeping the SUV in the garage and choosing instead to ride a bicycle to work -- in a snowstorm.

It just didn't make any sense. As always, Girardi had a smooth and, probably, smoothly prepared response for the question he must have known was coming.

"Well, Mo is a guy that we sometimes use for multiple innings in a situation if we are ahead,'' he said. "Our bullpen had been really, really good up to that point. We were down 2-0 and if you bring in Mo, you may not have him available for multiple innings tomorrow, if you want to use him.''

Perfectly logical. Except managers in the situation Girardi is now -- being forced to use a pitcher who has not won a game since Sept. 1, a span of 48 days, and has not even faced live hitters since Oct. 2, unless you count his simulated game on Wednesday against the terrible trinity of Ramiro Pena, Greg Golson and Austin Kearns -- have got to do everything possible to try to win every single game, even if it means using Rivera on a night you would rather not.

Who knows? Maybe Lee, having thrown 122 pitches, would have faltered against the top of the Yankees' lineup in the ninth, and Ron Washington would have been forced to go to his brilliant, but young closer, Neftali Feliz, in a truly pressurized situation.

Instead, after Logan and Robertson melted down, the latter allowing five hits and five runs in his worst outing of the season, Feliz had the luxury of mowing down a dispirited Yankees lineup in a bottom of the ninth about as pressurized a spring training game.

You certainly can't fault the Yankees' hitters, who managed just two hits off Lee, since they ran into one of the all-time great postseason pitching performances. Lee struck out 13 Yankees, including the last one, Brett Gardner, on three pitches.

And you can't very much fault Andy Pettitte, who pitched a great game himself. If not for a first-inning mistake that Josh Hamilton belted into the right-field seats, Pettitte might well have matched Lee, zero for zero. It was the pitching duel that Tim Lincecum-Roy Halladay was supposed to have been, and Pettitte was second best, but only slightly.

Now the Yankees face a must-win game, but in fact, their situation could be even worse if not for the eighth inning of Game 1, when they rallied against the Rangers' shaky bullpen to salvage a game that appeared lost after Sabathia pitched them into a 5-0 hole.

By rights, the Yankees should be one game from being swept right now, at which point you could make a strong argument that Girardi should blow the whole thing up and roll the dice with Sabathia in a desperate attempt to stave off an early end to his team's season.

But they are not at that point yet. And with Tommy Hunter, who was 13-4 this season but is certainly no Cliff Lee, on the mound in Game 4, it is possible Burnett could give up six runs and the Yankees might still win. After all the bats in this lineup are too good to remain silent forever.

And at any rate, even if you skip Burnett on Tuesday, you must bring him back on Wednesday because Phil Hughes, the only other true starting pitcher on the roster (sorry, Dustin Moseley), has never pitched on short rest and is not about to start now.

You can debate from here until pitchers and catchers report in February whether or not Girardi should have brought in Mariano in the ninth inning of Game 3. I'm firmly in the yes category.

But there's no discussion to be had about who should pitch Game 4 for the Yankees.

It's got to be A.J. And he's got to be good.

End of story. Or else, end of season.

Notes

With his 13 strikeouts, Lee became the first pitcher in history to record three straight games of 10-plus strikeouts in a single postseason. Bob Gibson did it over two postseasons, 1967 and 1968, all of which, of course, were World Series games. ... Mark Teixeira is 0-for-11 with three walks in the ALCS. ... Derek Jeter and Marcus Thames each struck out three times, and Teixeira, Jorge Posada and Curtis Granderson twice each. Robinson Cano was the only Yankee not to strike out. ... Posada had the Yankees' first hit, a soft opposite-field liner in the fifth, and Gardner the second, a grounder up the middle in the sixth. Gardner reached third after a stolen base and a ground out, but was stranded when Teixeira grounded to shortstop. ... With the exception of Cano, batting .417, the batting averages of the heart the Yankee lineup in the ALCS are pitiful: Jeter is at .231, Teixeira .000, Alex Rodriguez .154 and Nick Swisher .091. The Yankees have two home runs this series, both by Cano.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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