AJ Burnett surprised his manager. He certainly surprised Yankee fans. Needless to say, AJ Burnett surprised nearly everyone but himself Tuesday night.
With the Yankees on the brink of postseason elimination in the ALDS vs. the Detroit Tigers, Burnett came through. Burnett, he of a .500 regular-season record, 5-plus ERA and 1.43 WHIP, came through when it mattered most.
He carried the Yankees to a 10-1 win Tuesday night, knotting the ALDS at 2-2. It forces a decisive Game 5 Thursday night at Yankee Stadium.
For his part, Burnett struggled a bit with command (four walks) but wiggled out of trouble enough to get through 5 1/3 innings nearly unscathed. He only surrendered a fourth-inning home run to Victor Martinez that cut the Yankees' lead to 2-1.
Right off the bat, the Yankees' prospects did not look good. But again, weirdly, TBS analyst John Smoltz proved to be prophetic.
Burnett loaded the bases full of Tigers in the bottom of the first inning, and Smoltz declared that this was the most important inning already for Burnett. Anything - even an at-em ball, as Smoltz described it, and it could swing momentum in the Yankees' and Burnett's favor.
Burnett got just that - an at-em ball from Don Kelly - on which center fielder Curtis Granderson adjusted to make a leaping catch.
After the first inning, Curtis saved me, Burnett told reporters after the game. I was able to take a breath and start over.
There was the momentum swing. In the top of the third, the Yankees rallied as Derek Jeter broke out with his first hit with runners in scoring position during the series.
Then they broke out - two more in the fifth, five more in the eighth.
Here are three things to take away from the Yankees' victory Tuesday night:
1. The Yankees' offense is starting to click
Alex Rodriguez got his first two hits of the series. Derek Jeter got his first hit with runners in scoring position. They busted out for 10 runs. Every starter except Jorge Posada had a hit. They hit 6-for-14 with runners in scoring position. All signs point to the Yankees' offense is clicking at exactly the right time.
2. The Tigers need to hope for six-plus innings from Doug Fister on Thursday
Setup man Joaquin Benoit and closer Jose Valverde are the only two Tigers manager Jim Leyland can trust in his bullpen - and even Valverde has struggled to put games away. That much is evident after the bullpen's implosion Tuesday in the eighth inning, when three pitchers combined to give up six runs in 1 2/3 innings. The Yankees will try to make Fister work to get to the weak bullpen in the middle innings.
3. The Yankees may have found a fourth starter
This is your look-ahead key, but it's important. Yankees manager Joe Girardi's plan was to go three starters for the ALDS. He never specified a plan for the ALCS and even the World Series. With an encouraging showing Tuesday, Burnett looks like he could be that option. Still, he will have to keep proving his worth for Yankee fans to stop cringing at his name.