So much had been made of the looming disaster that A.J. Burnett’s forced Game Four start portended that, by the time he actually took to the mound, you half expected him to be carrying a chainsaw, a flamethrower, or a vat of battery acid. This was the nightmare scenario, the one the Yankees couldn’t have planned for, the one the rain brought them: Their least reliable, most aggravating pitcher, with the entire season on the line. This was the unraveling. These were the end times. You would have thought Burnett was a 13-year-old Malaysian girl who had never heard of baseball but had to pitch anyway; you would have thought he was a walking automatic forfeit. Well: He wasn’t.
The Yankees ended up pounding the Tigers 10-1 in Game Four of the ALDS, tying the series and sending it back for a winner-take-all Game Five on Thursday night. (Get your tickets now.) That score looks a little more lopsided than the game was; that score implies that the Yankees put a five-spot on the Tigers in the first inning and then sleepwalked home. That is not what happened.
Of all the nightmare scenarios for the Yankees, it’s difficult to come up with a more terrifying one than what Burnett faced in the first inning. Burnett walked three batters, one intentionally, but it wasn’t just that: It was that Burnett was melting down again, right in front of everyone, immediately. Bases loaded, first inning, crowd roaring … and Burnett, on a 1-0 count, threw a get-me-over fastball to Tigers right fielder Don Kelly. He didn’t miss it, bashing it to deep center, an apparent base-clearing triple. That would have been it for Burnett, right there: Cory Wade was already warming up in the bullpen. The hit would finish off Burnett in New York for life, and it very well might have started the end of the Yankees season.
That catch — which Granderson almost didn’t make — changed everything. Burnett settled down, giving up just one more run in a total of five and two-thirds innings of work, and the Yankees bats did what they were put on earth to do: Grab some runs early, then peck away until they finally break through, with two runs in the third (on a two-run double by Derek Jeter), two in the fifth and a six-run explosion in the eighth that sent everybody at Comerica Park home. Heck, even Alex Rodriguez had a hit, leading Miguel Cabrera to play around with the Yankees a little bit. Next thing you knew, the Yankees were on a plane back to the Bronx, your Game Five tickets got real valuable, and the world wasn’t ending. Oh, and Burnett ended up with the lowest ERA of any Yankee starter this series. Even if it wasn’t always the smoothest ride: The man pitches like he is actively attempting to cause physical pain on his team’s fans. That’s the fun of him? Maybe? Whichever: He did all the Yankees could have possibly hoped from him, and more. Heck, if the Yankees win this series, you might even see him starting again this postseason.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s all set up for Thursday night, with the Yankees hosting the Tigers, at 8:37 p.m. Doug Fister is the Detroit starter, and the Bombers will put their whole season in the hands of a rookie, Ivan Nova. That’s a stressful situation, but after tonight, it has to feel like one the Yankees can manage. With their season on the line, A.J. Burnett saved them. Now, Yankees fans, you’ve seen everything. Until Thursday, when we all get to do this again.