Stated or not, Yanks face pressure
Decision to trust Burnett in potential must-win Game 4 a risk
NEW YORK -- In a moment of clarity and uncommon candor 30 years ago, Tommy Lasorda lengthened one of the game's favorite phrases and, at the same time, pretty much contradicted it.
"You play them one at a time," Lasorda said, delving deep into baseball's treasure trove of trite. Then he added: "But you worry about all the games all the time."
It was early in the Dodgers' 1981 playoff series against the since-departed Expos that the Dodgers' oft-rambling manager shared that thought. And it applies today anywhere the game is managed by realists. Managers fret. They're paid to. They manage Game 2 and think of Game 5. They direct Game 4 and fret about Game 7.
Now, Joe Girardi is a card-carrying realist, and whether or not he acknowledges it, he is fretting, sweating and getting ahead of himself, just like regular folks who also push buttons, though only on their remotes. The Yankees and Tigers have played twice in this best-of-five American League Division Series. Each has won once. Nonetheless, the Tigers lead in the series. Can there be some alternate view in which the state of the Yankees seems favorable?
Not only are the next two games to be staged in Detroit, Girardi has identified A.J. Burnett as the Yankees' starting pitcher in Game 4. The gasps that followed that proclamation were audible from the Bronx to the Battery, from Montauk to Manalapan and anywhere else Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter are recognized as religious figures. "A.J. Burnett" is code for "Uh-oh."
Girardi made his decision final on Sunday before the Yankees' vaunted offense transformed Mad Max Scherzer into Bob Gibson during a 5-3 loss. And unless Tiger Town dumps more water on this already-saturated series and prompts another rainout on Monday or Tuesday night, Burnett will be pitching to Austin Jackson in the bottom of the first in Game 4.
Because of the rains on Friday, the reassignment of CC Sabathia to Game 3 and their vexing loss on Sunday, the Yankees' coordinates have changed dramatically in a short period -- from the intersection of prosperity and predominance to that of problematic and precarious, and now to predicament and precisely what they don't want.
Girardi put on his favorite mask and denied any misgivings about starting Burnett on Sunday. What else could he have done? Indeed, he made an effort to defuse the concern about the pitcher who produced a 5.15 ERA and an 11-11 record for a 97-76 team that won 17 of his 32 starts.
"A.J., his month of September wasn't bad," the manager said.
From such glowing endorsements do concerns grow.
And if Sabathia, pitching on weird rest, isn't as successful as Justin Verlander, also pitching on weird rest in Game 3 on Monday night, the Yankees' season will rest with a pitcher whose September wasn't bad. And whose August was.
"I finished up decent, I think," Burnett said on Sunday. "I had a good last game to feed off. And I had a good batter in Tampa to end the season on an out [a reference to a one-batter, five-pitch relief appearance on Wednesday]. So I'm looking forward to it.
"Each time was better. I had the one start here that got away from me, but I feel I'm where I need to be, throwing the ball well. I think my offspeed [pitch] is better. That's going to be key for me, getting the offspeed over for strikes. That's where a lot of strikeouts came from the last couple of starts -- attacking the zone and being aggressive and not worrying about too much."
Of course, no one worries.
All right, so maybe it's not a predicament just yet. But at best, the Yankees' situation is a problem practicing to become a predicament. And no matter how Girardi camouflages or sugarcoats it, the scenario doesn't bode well for the team with the best record in the AL this season unless the Yankees prevail on Monday night.
Then Tigers manager Jim Leyland can look ahead and fret. And he won't admit it, either. The postseason is a festival of denial and poppycock. Consider Sabathia's Sunday critique of Ivan Nova's performance in Game 1 on Saturday.
"It was unbelievable," Sabathia said. "But I wasn't surprised."
Postseason baseball comes with exquisite pressures. Squirming is required of the audience as well as the participants and the managers. That's why we watch it. That's why the ballpark is filled despite the economy, why the city hikes its parking fees from $35 to $45 at the Stadium.
Postseason baseball is cool. That can't be denied.
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.