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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Ain't Jesting: Burnett might have saved Yankees' season

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DETROIT -- Expectations were subterranean. Any lower, and both A.J. Burnett and his reputation would have melted right into the earth's core.

So of course, he rode to the Yankees' rescue on a white horse. That's the way this stuff works, isn't it? New York's season extinguished with one loss, drenching weekend rain forcing Joe Girardi to shuffle his rotation, Burnett popping up like a groundhog on the other side as the Bronx devolved into one giant jittery mess.

And then, from groans of "The season depends on A.J." to exclamations of "Good Lord almighty, look who saved the day!" in 81 pitches on a gorgeous night at Comerica Park for everything and everyone but the host Tigers.

Or, as they say here in Motown, from Nowhere to Run to Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch over 5 2/3 season-saving innings.

"Trust me," Derek Jeter said. "I'm sure all the New York fans will remember this game opposed to all the other games."

Mark it down: A.J. saves the day. New York scorches Detroit 10-1. The Bronx exhales. Curtis Granderson flies (more on that later). The Yankees head home for the deciding game of this division series on Thursday, rookie Ivan Nova vs. Doug Fister, champagne for the winner.

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"People can have whatever perception of A.J. they want," his catcher, Russell Martin said. "But he wants the ball. He wants to perform."

At a rate of $16.5 million annually through 2013 and with an ERA that sounds something like quitting time (5.15), the want-to hasn't meshed with the did-do, performance-wise, nearly as much as the Yankees and their army of fans expected. The butt of jokes for nearly two years running, Burnett has taken more hits than Mike Tyson's old punching bag.

"I think the last couple of weeks, you've seen the guy kind of get his confidence back," pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "He's been to hell and back, really."

Blackened and singed, he keeps coming back for more. Give the guy that. That persistence, the still very real potential of what he could do, and a wry sense of humor make it impossible to write him all the way off.

During a press briefing most notable for his easy self-deprecation on the eve of Game 4, Burnett promised, "I'm going to bring everything I've got and just let A.J. loose out there."

A.J. was loose, all right.

"I think that means he's going to throw the ball the way he's capable of," Rothschild said after Burnett de-clawed the Tigers to the tune of four scattered hits and one run. "He's capable of throwing his breaking ball for strikes at almost any time, and he has the ability to take people out of the strike zone with it, too.

"And he's throwing 93, 94, 95, so he's got enough fastball."

Burnett's disappointing 2011 season was neatly encapsulated by that inconsistent breaking ball over those 81 Game 4 pitches.

It was the breaking stuff that nearly did him in during the first inning, and it was that same breaking stuff that gave him and his team liftoff later.

In the first inning, he walked leadoff man Austin Jackson. Of course he did. You could hear the screams of rage from the Bronx all the way to Detroit's Renaissance Center. Then, with two outs and Jackson on third, manager Girardi had Burnett intentionally walk Miguel Cabrera. Then Burnett came up with the idea to walk Victor Martinez all by himself.

Bases loaded, two outs and Burnett's breaking balls were bouncing in the dirt. And oh, by the way, Cory Wade was up in the bullpen in the first inning.

"This is an important game," Burnett said later. "All hands on deck. If I wasn't getting it done, somebody would have come in and gotten it done."

Then Don Kelly scorched a low line drive that screamed to straightaway center field, and Granderson took a step in. Quickly realizing his mistake, Granderson turned and streaked back, back, back. At the last minute, he stuck his glove up as far as he could reach ... and snagged the ball to end the inning.

"Sometimes you can pick out the key out in the game, and I think the key out happened in the very first inning," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, adding: "If it would have gotten over his head and he had fallen down, it might have been an inside-the-park home run."

And the Tigers would have had a 4-0 lead.

Instead, at 0-0, these were the only numbers that mattered in the first two innings:

Burnett needed 21 pitches to navigate through the first, only nine of which were strikes.

Burnett zipped through the second on only 10 pitches -- nine strikes.

The difference was, Rothschild said, Burnett was overthrowing in the first inning. Just as Justin Verlander did for Detroit in Game 3 the night before.

"After the first inning, he got his feet wet and broke the ice, he settled in nicely," Martin said. "He was aggressive with all of his pitches. That was the key for him."

You could see it as the game roared on: Burnett made like the fat kid in class who suddenly realizes he can make people laugh with his jokes and begins developing serious self-confidence.

"I think he's kind of learned from things," Rothschild said. "I know people say it's taken awhile, but we're all human."

He's 34 now, and there probably isn't a lot of time left on his learning curve. But thanks to Granderson -- who knows the terrain at Comerica Park like a head groundskeeper and made another stunning, diving, fully-extended catch to end the sixth -- Burnett escaped the first. And thanks to his breaking ball, he burrowed deeper into a game the Yankees had to have.

By the end, on some level, it was as if the town drunk suddenly had become mayor. Nobody expected this.

Well, make that nobody minus a couple of dozen folks slathered in pinstripes.

"The funny thing is, everybody in the locker room felt good about him pitching," Rothschild said.

And as Jeter said, whatever happens, as he does with his Game 2 victory in the 2009 World Series, Burnett will always have Tuesday night in Motown.

"He pitched huge when we needed him most," Jeter said, adding: "He's the reason we get an opportunity to play on Thursday."

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