Wednesday night was a bad dream for the Yankees, with Cliff Lee taking the place of showing up to take the SATs with no clothes on. The nice thing about baseball is that it usually gives you a chance to get right back on the horse after she bucks you. The scary thing is that sometimes that horse is a high-strung stallion going by the name of A.J. Burnett.
Is there a thought that causes Yankee fans more palpitations than the one of Burnett starting a big game with no margin for error?
It isn't that Burnett's not a talented pitcher. He's flashed his skills all season long. What's vexing is that he can lose that nasty stuff in a heartbeat. When he does he's either as hittable as a ball on the tee (first inning, ALCS Game 5) or as wild as a sophomore taking ectasy on spring break (fifth inning, ALCS Game 2). There have been instances this season when he's been both and for more than one inning at a time and, of course, instances when he's been just as dominant as Lee was in Game 1.
It's the opposite of what made Andy Pettitte such a good Game 2 pitcher in Yankee playoffs of the past. At their best, Burnett is a scarier pitcher to face than Pettitte, but Pettitte rarely turns in anything close to the lows that Burnett experiences on a fairly regular basis. If you're down a game, you'd like the guy who will, at worst, keep you in the game over the guy who might throw a one-hitter or might give up five runs to the first seven hitters. There's no second guess here, as Burnett was signed to pitch games like this and Pettitte pitched on Sunday, just an observation about how different styles are suited to different moments.
They can't afford to fall down 2-0 on their way to Philadelphia for three games. Yes, we know that's what happened in 1996 against the Braves, but you can quote just about any scenario in a World Series and find a Yankee team that pulled it off. It's not advisable, is the point. Assuming the Pedro Martinez of 1999 doesn't show up and the Yankee hitters do, Burnett is the guy who will have the most to do with whether or not the game goes the Yankees way.
Which Burnett shows up Thursday night? The Phillies pounded him at the Stadium in a regular season matchup, but that probably doesn't have much predictive use because of the fungible nature of Burnett's outings. We'll just have to wait and see, preferably with a defibrillator on hand.