Burnett is not alone

(Leon Halip/Getty Images)

The season is on the line tonight, and A.J. Burnett is the one charged with saving it. That sounds like pretty scary, and it is, but baseball isn’t an individual sport. There are 24 other guys on the roster and they’re just as responsible for making sure the Yankees live to play another day.

More than football, hockey, or basketball, baseball is an individual game. It’s a collection of individual at-bats chained together, and although there is some overlap, one man generally can not carry a team. Burnett at his best isn’t enough to win tonight’s game, it’s up to the offense and the bullpen to back him up. Now, the offense did a fine job against Justin Verlander last night, scoring four more runs than anyone expected them too, but they need to do better in Game Four. I’m talking constant pressure on Rick Porcello & Co., especially early in the game.

The bullpen needs to really step up as well tonight, probably even moreso than the offense. Rafael Soriano and (especially) David Robertson will have a lot of heavy lifting to do tonight, as will 42-year-old Mariano Rivera. If Burnett exits before the fifth, something he did three times in his final ten starts of the season, then Phil Hughes and Cory Wade start to become important. Boone Logan might show up to face Alex Avila at some point, but in the name of all that is holy, Luis Ayala must be used in emergencies only. I’d rather see Ivan Nova out of the bullpen in extra innings before Ayala, to be honest.

I’m not sure where I’m really going with this, but the point I want to make is that this game is not on Burnett alone. His teammates can make his life a little easier, and frankly they have too. They did a real nice job taking the lead early in last night’s game, and I’d love to see another quick strike like that again tonight (Yanks were up 1-0 five pitches into last night’s game). Burnett will play a major role in Game Four, but at the end of the day, he’s just one of 25 players on the roster. The Yankees will win as a team or they will lose as a team.

The Quick Hook

Bartolo Colon should probably be starting Game Four tonight. He outperformed A.J. Burnett all season long, but his stuff clearly faded down the stretch. The Yankees were concerned enough about Bart’s declining stuff that they left him off their ALDS roster entirely, so now the season is in Burnett’s hands. It wasn’t supposed to be, he’s only getting the ball because the weather didn’t cooperate on Friday, but it is what it is. No sense in complaining about it.

“I could have a very short leash,” said Joe Girardi after last night’s game, an indication of how important the game is more than his lack of faith in Burnett. It’s the first true must win of the season, either win or go home. Girardi needs to have a quick hook not because it’s A.J., but because of the magnitude of the game. He can’t afford to let any one of his pitchers let the game get out of hand, not just his starter.

Burnett has typically done his best work the first time through the order this year, part of the reason why he was in the bullpen to start the postseason. He pitched well against the Tigers in Detroit earlier this season, limiting them to two earned runs in seven innings of work (there were three unearned runs in there due to some Eduardo Scissorhands defensive funny business). That’s the best case scenario. I’ll take two runs over four innings and call it a win. Two runs in five would be a godsend.

Rafael Soriano threw 22 pitches last night, David Robertson just 14. Those two are good to go, for more than one inning if needed. Robertson especially is in six out territory; we saw Girardi use Kerry Wood as a two-inning setup man is Game Five of the ALCS last year (also an elimination game) and that’s exactly what he needs to do with his top setup arm tonight. Mariano Rivera has thrown three pitches since last Tuesday, so he’s good for more than just one inning of work now as well. It truly is an all hands on deck game.

“People are entitled to their opinion, and obviously I give them reasons here and there to doubt,” said Burnett after Game Three. “But the bottom line is I have confidence in myself. I’m not going to go out and try to prove anything. I’m going to go try and win a ballgame.” It doesn’t matter how he does it, just that he does it. Burnett has to be viewed as just one of many tonight, the first link in a pitching staff chain that will have to carry the Yankees back to the Bronx for Game Five.

ALDS Game Thread: Rangers @ Rays

It’s do or die time for The Team of Destiny™, the club that was turning triple plays and making miraculous comebacks in September just to qualify for the postseason. The Rangers lead the best-of-five series two games to one, and are sending Matt Harrison to the mound. The Rays counter with Jeremy Hellickson. First pitch is scheduled for 2:07pm ET and can be seen on TBS. Enjoy.

Banuelos, Betances, Romine among top Eastern League prospects

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Baseball America’s look at the top 20 prospects in each minor league continued with the Double-A Eastern League today, and three Yankees farmhands made the cut. Manny Banuelos ranked sixth, Dellin Betances was three spots behind him at number nine, and Austin Romine was a little further down at number 17. Bryce Harper and (personal fave) Travis d’Arnaud topped the list.

In the subscriber-only scouting reports, John Manuel says Banuelos has “excellent velocity for a lefthander, with his fastball sitting at 90-94 mph and touching 95 with regularity.” His changeup has “sinking, screwball action when it’s on and was often his best secondary pitches.” He can also get whiffs with a power curve. Some managers in the league noted that Banuelos’ fastball command suffered because he overthrew, but others think it was a release point issue. “[Several] observers believed that his delivery will allow him to throw more strikes as he matures,” added Manuel.

Betances is referred to as a “physical beast who uses his size to sit at 91-95 mph and reach 97 with his fastball.” The report cites three secondary pitches: a power curve, a high-80’s cutter/slider, and a changeup that has “improved and is an above-average pitch at times.” The problem continues to be command, obviously. Romine is said to have a strong arm and “the hands, athletic ability and agility needed to be a sound receiver.” He’s a streaky hitter, and his batting practice power has yet to consistently show up in games.

The next and last top 20 list of interest to Yankees fans is the Triple-A International League, which will be posted Friday. Jesus Montero will certainly make an appearance somewhere high on the list, and a few of the arms (David Phelps and Adam Warren in particular) could get some love as well. Brandon Laird might even make an appearance.

ALDS Game Three Chat

Update: There’s some kind of problem on Cover It Live’s end, so no chat right now. Don’t hate me, I’m just the messenger. We’ll do another one tomorrow at the same time, assuming everything gets straightened out.

Click through for the chat…

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A case of deja vu for Yanks and Tigers

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?

2011 ALDS: Previewing Rick Porcello

(Matt Harding / In Play! Magazine)

With their season on the line, the Yankees will face a local kid in tonight’s Game Four. Rick Porcello, a graduate of Seton Hall Prep in West Orange, already has three full big league seasons to his credit despite being a professional for just four years. He didn’t spend a single day in either Double-A or Triple-A before cracking the Tigers’ opening day rotation in 2009, and the lack of experience has shown a bit. Although this will be his first career playoff start, Porcello did pitch well (two runs in 5.2 IP) in Game 163 against the Twins as a rookie.

Performance

A true ground ball reliant pitcher (we’ll get to why in a bit), Porcello owns a 4.75 ERA with a 4.06 FIP and 4.02 xFIP in his career. The ERA is obviously poor, but the peripheral-based stats are almost exactly league average during his three-year career. He doesn’t miss bats (4.84 K/9 career) but he doesn’t walk anyone (2.38 BB/9 career), and obviously he gets a bunch of grounders (51.9% career). His 2011 performance is right in line with his career totals (5.14 K/9, 2.27 BB/9, and 51.4% grounders).

Still just 22 years old, Porcello has shown no home/road split during his career simply because he doesn’t give up enough fly balls for Comerica Park’s spacious outfielder to matter. Left-handers have hit him substantially better both this year and over his career though, and we’ll look at why right now.

Pitch Selection

(via Texas Leaguers and FanGraphs)

After taking Porcello in the first round of the 2007 draft, the Tigers sent him to High Class-A in 2008 and put him on a pitch count. In an effort to pitch deeper into games, the right-hander developed a two-seamer to get quick ground ball outs, and that’s been his approach ever since. Once a power pitcher with two swing-and-miss pitches in his four-seamer and slider, Porcello is now essentially a sinkerballer by choice.

Two two-pitch pitchers like Max Scherzer, Porcello uses a fastball-slider approach against righties and fastball-changeup against lefties. He uses his curve so infrequently that it’s not worth mentioning. At more than a full run worse than average (per 100 thrown), Porcello’s changeup is his worst pitch, and that’s why he struggles against lefties. He has to get them out with his fastball, the changeup just isn’t good enough to consistently rely on. All of his other pitches are right around league average, close enough that it’s not worth getting worked up over.

Pitching Pattern

(via FanGraphs)

The XX pitch is an undefined pitch by PitchFX, the system was unable to classify it. Perhaps it’s a slurve or cement-mixer changeup, something that doesn’t fit into one of the other pitch categories. A junk pitch. At 3-9% in the various counts, he throws a decent amount of them.

Like most sinkerballers, Porcello is very fastball heavy, even with two strikes. His first pitch strike percentage has increased every season of his career (61.4% in 2011 compared to the 59.4% league average), so he does a decent job of getting ahead of hitters. Not an extraordinary job though, the Yankees will be able to work the count a little bit more than they were against Justin Verlander, who seemed to be 0-1 then 0-2 on everybody. Porcello will let them put the ball in play and that’s a good thing, the Tigers have a shaky infield defense (especially at short and at first) and you want to force those guys to make the plays. If the sinker’s really working, it could be a long night for the offense. If not, Porcello will have to battle for every out. The latter has been true more often than the former in his career.