The most important game of the year

The October (and November) of A-Rod
A nice day for parade

AL Burnett in Game Two of the World SeriesFans are quick to throw around the “must win” or “huge game” or (ahem) “playoff preview” moniker these days. If a team loses two games in a row with a division rival set to come into town over the weekend, then it’s called a big game. No matter what fans call it, you can always tell which games are the most important by how the team treats them. When Ian Kennedy is brought into the eighth inning with a one-run lead in Anaheim for his first action of the season, then yeah, it’s not all that important.

Most of the time for a playoff club, the most important game of the season is a Game Seven, or an elimination game where the season was on the line. Those are the true “must-wins,” not those dumb games in June that seem important just because the offense is in a little bit of a funk.

For the 2009 Yankees, the most important game of the year seems pretty clear to me: Game Two of the World Series.

Think about the circumstances coming into the game. Cliff Lee had just manhandled the Yankees the night before. He crushed them, grabbing liners behind his back and shagging pop-ups nonchalantly when he wasn’t striking guys out. For a team that had dominated the competition during the regular season and made good clubs like the Twins and Angels look like Little League teams with all the mistakes they forced, Game One of the World Series was a humbling experience.

Not only did the Yankees come into Game Two already down one-love in the series, they were going on the road to Philadelphia for the next three games. Heading down the turnpike down two games to none was something the Bombers wanted to avoid at all costs. So they gave the ball to AJ Burnett, the most unpredictable starter in their playoff rotation.

And AJ delivered.

He pounded the zone early all night, throwing first pitch strikes to 22 of the 26 batters he faced. He threw his fastball and curve at almost a 1:1 ratio (53 fastballs, 45 curves), and allowed the first four batters in Philly’s’ lineup to reach base just twice, and one of those instances was an intentional walk to Chase Utley. Burnett sat down the last eight batters he faced, and the only run he gave up came on a ball that ricocheted off Alex Rodriguez‘s glove.

It was a masterful performance, and the game was more important to the outcome of the Yankees’ season than either of his Game Five starts (ALCS or World Series). Opposing starter Pedro Martinez held the Yankees’ offense down, meaning there was little margin for error. Anytime a starter can hand the ball off to Mariano Rivera in a playoff game, then you know he’s done his job and then some.

Let’s give AJ some props. He’s frustrating as hell, but the dude was money in the team’s most important game of their championship  season.

Photo Credit: David J. Phillip, AP

The October (and November) of A-Rod
A nice day for parade
  • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

    Hear, hear. I agree Game 2 was the biggest game of the season, and AJ came up huge in that situation (this point can’t be overstated). In a 2-3-2 series (a schedule I don’t like since it gives the “disadvantaged” team 3 of the first 5 games in their home park, but that’s neither here nor there), the team with home-field advantage absolutely cannot go on the road for 3 consecutive games while facing an 0-2 deficit. Given how disappointed AJ was after his Game 5 performance, hopefully the eventual series win allows him to appreciate just how big a role he played in bringing the championship back to the Bronx. Hopefully everyone else appreciates it, too. AJ is not a staff-ace, he certainly has his flaws… But in 2009 the guy did the job (and then some) that he was brought here to do. 207 healthy innings and a dominating start in the most important game of the year (in the World Series, no less)? That’s a job well done.

    • Tank Foster

      And let’s not forget he pitched well in his ALDS and ALCS starts. He was not perfect, but he performed well. Next year, I predict he will be better. He is the type of pitcher who should improve with age, as he loses some of his stuff (which he probably has too much of, anyway) he’ll get better command. That’s my theory anyway.

      • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

        Hopefully, we’ll see. Honestly, any improvement in his performance would be awesome, but I think if you get 4 more years of healthy (or even relatively healthy) AJ with an ERA in the very high 3s or very low 4s, you’ve gotta be happy with the return on that investment. He’s on a nice little roll (fingers-crossed) health-wise, so hopefully staying on the field for a longer stretch than he ever has in the past will allow him to settle into a little more of a long-term groove and improve his performance a bit.

        • Chris

          I’m not that worried about him health wise. Most of the time he missed was due to his elbow. Before he went down for TJ surgery he missed time with an elbow injury (I would assume there was some connection), and then after he came back he was on the DL a couple times with scar tissue or other pain in his elbow. Now that he’s pitched two full healthy seasons, I don’t expect him to be more of a health risk than most pitchers in their mid-30s.

          • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

            That’s a good point and I agree, I was in favor of signing him last offseason and I think the health issues seem to be behind him. Hopefully those who were worried about his health last offseason have had those fears assuaged by his having completed a couple of totally healthy seasons.

  • Tank Foster

    I was lucky enough to be at that game, section 310! My first World Series game, and I can now say forever that I was at the first winning World Series game in YS3.

    I remember Burnett’s first pitch, a 94 mph fastball to Rollins for a called strike. I remember thinking during his warmup “please throw strikes and get ahead.” I was worried about seeing bad AJ, but he was in control all night and really manhandled the Phillies.

    I was even lucky enough to miss the hit off ARod’s glove, as I was waiting in line for food. Well, I saw it on the monitor, I guess.

    Which brings up another point: Why are there 5 hot dog concessions for every one burger concession? Why can’t the sell burgers at all the concessions, since there are never any lines at the hot dog stands, and the burger concession has a 10 minute wait.

    I demand better service!!!!!! ;-)

  • Moshe Mandel

    Yup. I’ve been tweeting this all week. AJ had the Yankees’ best start of the World Series in their most important game. I was one of those who liked the signing, and was frustrated a bit by his inconsistency, but that start made it all worth it.

  • Nady Nation

    I’m not the biggest AJ fan (as a pitcher…I do like his fit in the clubhouse and his lively personality). I was pulling my hair out Monday night when he was shitting the bed, and it still drives me crazy that he needed to use our backup catcher in the playoffs. With all that being said, this post is dead on – AJ delivered the biggest pitching performance of the playoffs for the Yanks, no question about it, and he most definitely deserves tons of credit for that. Hopefully someone pies him at the parade today as a thank you.

    • IvanS

      Yeah, the biggest complaint I had about game 5 was the idea that for all the talent he has you still don’t know what is going to happen game to game or even inning to inning. He really did have his best game of the year at the most meaningful time and people should not forget about that.

      • Tank Foster

        …for all the talent he has you still don’t know what is going to happen game to game or even inning to inning…

        Meh….but isn’t this true with all pitchers to a degree? I love AJ and am probably biased, but I view him as just a leeeeeetle more inconsistent than most. I thought he had a couple of nice runs, one around the all-star break, and one at the end of the season, where he was consistently good.

        I think if you really looked at some index of his consistency, you’d find he wasn’t quite as volatile as he’s made out to be. One thing I noticed looking at his game logs is that he was pretty consistent all year with lasting 6+ innings. Even bad starts, he was economical enough to be able to last 6 innings or so, and save the bullpen. Not all the time, of course…he was out of there in 2 innings a couple of times, but in general you have to be happy with getting 200 IP and a 4.04 ERA these days. That’s strong work.

  • chriskeo

    Mike, aren’t you at the parade?

    • Pete

      It’s called “scheduled publishing”… ;-)

  • Rebecca-Optimist Prime

    You all can blame Amanda, Brent and me for the Game 2 win.

    We decided in the fourth we’d have a mid-game luck-changing tweetup, and lo and behold, next inning Teixeira goes yard.

    So yes, the win is our fault.

    Thank you, thank you very much.

  • Jake H

    AJ was masterful in that game. He was just on and made the Phillies look like little girls up there. Without that fluke double he doesn’t give up a run.

  • http://Youcan'tincreaseyourrange TLVP

    AJ was good this year and if we get the same for teh next 4 years we should be very happy with him. Game 2 was the biggest win of the year and he was great.

    However AJ was the starter we had the biggest problem winning behind, excluding the 5th starter. However it is amazing how similar the figures are

    We won
    70.3% of Andy Pettitte’s start
    64.5% of Joba’s starts
    64.1% of CC’s starts
    63.2% of AJ’s strats
    59.4% of 5th starter’s starts (yes including CMW)

    Excluding CMW the “5th starter” was right up there with 69.6% or 16 wins out of 23 starts.

    Conclusion? Our bull penn is awesome, our offense is great and even our bad starters are better than we give them credit for. Why is that? Because we are the MFY!

    • http://Youcan'tincreaseyourrange TLVP

      Do you realize that our winning percentage in games started by CMW, Gaudin, Mitre, Hughes and Aceves is higehr than that of any other team in MLB except the Angels? The Angels acheived 59.6% (including post season) compared to 59.4% for those 5 guys.

  • Tim

    TLVY – consider this, too – Burnett took a loss or no decision in 12 (12!!!) starts this year, including playoffs, where he pitched a Quality Start. There were MANY outings where he pitched extremely well and had nothing to show for it, as the offense didn’t show up. Really, his BEST start of the year had to be the 7.2 IP game against Boston at YS3. You know – the one where the Yankees didn’t score until the 15th inning. A brilliant outing, and a ND. Sure he finished 13-9, but it really could have been more like 17-18 wins with a little better offensive support in a few outings.

    • http://Youcan'tincreaseyourrange TLVP

      First point is I’m not counting AJ’s wins, but rather the Yankees’ wins in games started by AJ.So there can be no-no decisions

      I know, he sometimes had bad run support, but he gave up 6 runs or more in 7 starts. Andy gave up 6 rus or more twice.

      The definition of a quality start has often been under fire for being too lax. For the Yankees I’m not sure I agree. When your line up is Jeter-Damon-Teix-A-Rod-Posada-Matsui-Cano- Swisher-Cabrera and your bull penn is Hughes-K-ROb-Marte-Rivera, a starter that goes 5.2 innings and gives up 4 runs still give the team a great chance of winning

  • Joe D.

    I love this team, but..

    Very few playoff props for AJ from me. He stunk on ice in 3 of his 5 postseason starts, with one of three being the Minnesota start where he got awfully lucky.

    Definite props to him on the great start against Philly, but I’m hesitant give him too much credit there since it seems as though Good AJ / Bad AJ fluctuation is random. I should him credit when Good AJ shows up though eh? If he had more control over that, he wouldn’t have been awful in 60% of his playoff starts.

    The dude is definitely an above-average pitcher overall, and I’m glad we’ve got him. Next year, I’m hoping he can even out his performances a bit more and stop giving me 2008 Oliver Perez flashbacks.

    • Tank Foster

      You can’t be serious.

    • http://Youcan'tincreaseyourrange TLVP

      he started 38 games this year – in 20 he gave up 2 runs or less and ever single time he lasted at least 5 innings – really good AJ

      in 10 he gave up 3-4 runs and in 9 of those he lasted at least 6 innings – in those starst he was OK-AJ

      If you define bad AJ as someone who gives up more than 4 runs or lasts less than 5 innings he had 9 such starts

      Bad AJ 25% of the time and Really Good AJ 55% of the time with OK AJ 20% of the time.

      Its not a 50/50 thing, people seem to forget that

  • bkight13

    How about a vote for the All-Star game. If Granderson doesn’t triple and score on a sac fly, the Yanks are at Philly for Game 2. AJ has struggled on the road and his game 5 performance would’ve put us down 2-0. Maybe Burnett would beat Lee at home in Game 5, but we would have no Matsui for Games 6 and 7.

    And yes, Mo got the Save following a shaky performance from Paplepon who got the Win.

  • Geg

    AJ was a great signing.

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