Yankees win the AL East with the best record in baseball and face the Tigers in the first round of the playoffs while the Red Sox miss the playoffs. That sequence begins the parallels between 2006 and 2011, but the parallels do not end there.
In both series the Yankees took Game 1 in a convincing manner. In both series rain played a part, and in both series the Yankees lost a game on what should have been an off day. Both times they lost the next day, too, with a lefty on the mound. And both times they have entered Game 4 facing elimination with a shaky pitcher on the mound.
The parallels end here. In 2006 the Yankees had an alternative. Instead of handing the ball to Jaret Wright they could have gone to Chien-Ming Wang on three days’ rest. In fact, they ended up doing just that the very next year. (The difference, of course, was that Wang had pitched well in 2006’s Game 1, whereas he did not in 2007’s.) In 2011 there is no real alternative. Bartolo Colon is gassed and off the roster. Phil Hughes hasn’t started in a month. The only real option here is Burnett.
Most Yankees fans remember the feeling of October 7, 2006. Wright got knocked around early, allowing two homers in the second to put the Yanks down 3-0. Meanwhile, Jeremy Bonderman cruised, retiring the first 15 Yankees he faced with relative ease. Combine that with a Cory Lidle meltdown and you have the Tigers with an 8-0 lead in the seventh. Not even a 9th inning Jorge Posada homer made a dent in the deficit.
Given the way Burnett has pitched this season, it’s difficult to expect more from him. The only remotely encouraging aspect of his 2011 season was his strikeout rate, which jumped back up to the 8s after it was around 7 per nine last season. He also pitched relatively well in September, striking out 28 percent of his batters faced and shutting down the Red Sox in his final start. Even with these slightly encouraging trends, it’s tough to have anything but feigned confidence in Burnett tonight. He just hasn’t shown a consistent ability to get batters out since May.
One mitigating factor for Burnett is the park in which he’ll pitch. His biggest problem this season, by far, was the long ball. His 1.47 homers per nine was the third worst in baseball among qualified pitchers. While he generally did not fare better on the road, Comerica Park is not your typical road park. As we saw last night, its spacious dimensions help keep baseballs inside the park — Curtis Granderson, Russell Martin, and Miguel Cabrera can attest to that. Maybe, just maybe, some of those potential homers will turn into long fly outs, and Burnett can keep the game in order.
It takes oozing optimism to believe that A.J. Burnett will come through tonight. So many times this season he simply has not. But thinking back on 2006, I can’t imagine preferring Jaret Wright in this spot. There was absolutely nothing inspiring about him. At least Burnett has something going in his favor. Maybe the big park helps. Maybe he buries a few curves and fools the Tigers. That would end the parallels in this series.
Bonus parallel: In 2007 Phil Hughes took the ball in an elimination game after the starter lasted just 2.1 innings and saved the season. Is it so hard to see that happening again?