Tuesday, October 19, 2010

ALCS Game 4: Deja Vu

With the series knotted up, the Yankees took the field for their first home game of the round. They squandered a gutsy two run performance from their southpaw starter before the bullpen let things get out of hand late. It wouldn't have really mattered anyway, because Cliff Lee was that good, dominating the Yankee offense for eight innings, not allowing a single earned run. Now down a game in the series, New York turns to the mercurial A.J. Burnett in attempt to pull things even.
Sound familiar? It could easily be ripped from a recap of last night's game. Except it's not. It's a two-bit synopsis of Game One of last year's World Series, where CC Sabathia yielded just two runs over seven frames before the bullpen let things get out of hand, just as it happened last night. Where Cliff Lee shut the Yankees out for eight innings, just like last night. When Lee walked only one batter, just like last night. When Lee allowed just one Yankee baserunner to advance past first base, just like last night, before a meaningless, unearned run crossed the plate in the last of the ninth.

A.J. Burnett took the ball the very next evening and pulled the series even, turning in one of his finest starts as a Yankee: tossing seven innings of four hit, two walk ball, allowing just one run while fanning nine. Given the circumstances, it was probably the single biggest performance by a Yankee starter in the 2009 post-season.

A lot has changed since then. Lee is no longer a Phillie, in Texas after a stop in Seattle. The Yanks head into tonight's game knowing they'll be facing elimination if they lose again, circumstances a bit less manageable than facing a potential 0-2 hole last year. Burnett, who had already displayed his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tendencies during his first season in the Bronx, is coming off a 2010 even rockier than his 2009. He hasn't pitched in eighteen days, hasn't had a decent start in over a month, hasn't been a reliable starting pitcher since Memorial Day, and has been the object of ceaseless whippings from Joel Sherman and all other corners of the tabloid media and Yankee blogosphere.

And yet, he remains the Bombers' best option to start this game. While many would advocate bringing CC Sabathia back on short rest, I'm not sure what good that would do. There's no way Phil Hughes is being brought back on short rest. So best case scenario is that CC opposes the Rangers' worst starter and pulls the Yankees even, but they are still left to start Burnett against Texas' number two in a Game Five that could send them to brink of elimination. Worst case, a short-rested Sabathia can't pull it off, and the club is left to send Burnett to the mound with the season hanging in the balance. I'll take my chances with Burnett tonight, thank you.

Of course, all of that is assuming that Burnett is utterly incapable of doing anything but imploding tonight. And I'm not buying that argument. There's no way to put a positive spin on Burnett's season. From June on, he went 7-15 with a 5.87 ERA over 28 starts. Opponents hit .291/.375/.481 off him over that stretch. It was downright ugly. But who is A.J. Burnett? What kind of pitcher is he? I think many assume that since he pitched very well against the Yankees during his days in Toronto, that since the pitching-desperate Yankees overpaid him in both years and average annual value after their poor 2008 season, that since he was deemed a "number two" as a result of that deal, that Burnett should be a CC-lite. And I think that's an unreasonable expectation. Burnett has always been an up-and-down sort of guy, and this year for the first time, has been more downs than ups. But that doesn't change the fact that Burnett remains a talented pitcher, and a pitcher capable of giving the Yankees the performance they need tonight.

And if that fails, perhaps Tommy Hunter is the cure for what ails the suddenly anemic Yankee offense. As Aaron Gleeman pointed out this morning, and Mike Axisa expounded upon, the Rangers should have some concerns of their own when it comes to their starter for tonight. I suppose it's a lot easier to stomach those questions when you're up 2-1, and when you're a late inning meltdown away from being up 3-0. But at the very least, if Burnett implodes tonight, the Yankees have a puncher's chance to outslug the Rangers anyway.

Three hundred fifty five days after Cliff Lee last put on a pitching clinic in the South Bronx the Yankees find themselves in a similar situation: A.J. Burnett taking the ball the next day in what's essentially the closest a game can be to being "must win" without a loss resulting in elimination. I'm hoping history repeats itself, or as Yogi might say, that it's deja vu all over again.


If I had ever been here before I would probably know just what to do
Don't you?
If I had ever been here before on another time around the wheel
I would probably know just how to deal
With all of you.
And I feel
Like I've been here before
Feel
Like I've been here before
And you know
It makes me wonder
What's going on under the ground
[Song Notes: From their debut album of the same name - at least their first album where Neil Young joined Crosby, Stills, and Nash, this performance of Deja Vu comes from 1991 and is missing the "Y" in CSNY. Side note, I once randomly ran into Graham Nash while walking down Newbury Street in Boston]

-Lineups-

Yankees:
The lineup flips over to the standard vs. RHP format, with Granderson moving up, Swisher moving down, and Berkman replacing Thames. The big news however is that Francisco Cervelli will get the start behind the plate, further fueling the Posada-can't-catch-A.J. myth. Probably not the ideal move for a team whose offense is sputtering at present.
Derek Jeter SS
Curtis Granderson CF
Mark Teixeira 1B
Alex Rodriguez 3B
Robinson Cano 2B
Nick Swisher RF
Lance Berkman DH
Brett Gardner LF
Francisco Cervelli C

A.J. Burnett RHP

Rangers:
Tommy Hunter RHP

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