If dread could be personified, it would look a lot like A.J. Burnett on the mound in the bottom of the first inning of a playoff elimination game.
Burnett, owner of the two worst ERAs for any Yankee pitcher allowed to make 30 starts in a season, will get the ball with the Yankees on the brink of elimination on Tuesday night.
It took a lot of twists and turns for the Yankees to get to this point -- Brian Cashman's inability/unwillingness to upgrade the rotation, MLB ignoring weather reports on Friday, CC Sabathia spitting the bit on Monday, Rafael Soriano grooving a fastball to Delmon Young -- but that's all prologue at this point.
Now it comes down to Burnett pitching against the weight of both the Tigers and the low expectations of everyone who has watched him blow up time and again over the last two years.
The fear of this scenario has been brewing in the deepest reaches of the hearts and minds of Yankee fans since the moment Cliff Lee decided to sign with the Phillies last winter.
Their season comes down to a starting pitcher who isn't Sabathia and a pitcher who no one believes can get the job done. The Yankees have been here before -- Jaret Wright in the 2006 ALDS, Kevin Brown in the 2004 ALCS, Chien-Ming Wang in the 2007 ALDS -- and they have lost every single time.
Is there any reason to believe this will be any different? Burnett doesn't inspire much confidence, but it bears mentioning that he gave up two runs over seven innings to help send the Red Sox to their demise in his last start of the regular season.
Beyond Burnett, though, it is helpful to remember that there's more than just one man taking the field for the Yankees on Tuesday night. There will be nine guys with bats in their hands who will have some say in whether or not there's a game back in the Bronx on Thursday night.
Rick Porcello, the Tigers starter, is not the second coming of Sandy Koufax. As it happens, Porcello has the same terribly low ERA+ (ERA normalized for ballpark factors and measured against the league average) as Burnett and had a higher expected Fielding Independent Pitching (a predictive measure based on the parts of a game a pitcher has control over without regard to defense) mark this season.
Porcello was very good in September and pitched well in his one outing against the Yankees this year, but you would expect the Yankees offense to produce runs against him. Or you would if it wasn't for the fact that Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixiera have looked like lost children in the wilderness during every one of their at-bats this series.
The two of them are 1-for-21 thus far, a big reason why the Yankees find themselves staring into the abyss at this hour. If either one of them can find their stroke, it would go a long way toward making this game about more than just whether or not Burnett can come up with the kind of performance the Yankees expected to see from him when they handed him $82.5 million for five years before the start of the 2009 season.
It is about more than that, of course, but narratives have a way of writing themselves. The narrative of Game Four is going to be all about Burnett and the Yankees have to find a way to win the game in spite of that.
The way to do that is to make Burnett as irrelevant as possible and that comes down to an underachieving lineup finally flexing its muscles.