DETROIT – Standing on a strange mound in a strange city, going on 35 years old and perhaps wondering why the game insists on being so wretchedly moody, A.J. Burnett(notes) whacked Joe Girardi on the rear end with his baseball glove.
Girardi, the manager of the New York Yankees, had started it. He'd reached the mound long after most had predicted it, with a lead few saw coming, leading to a Game 5 that wasn't supposed to come. There, he appreciatively pounded Burnett's chest three times with his hand.
Burnett was on his way to the showers. Maybe even merrily on his way to the showers.
The pair had had trouble with these moments before, when Girardi came for the ball and Burnett wasn't entirely ready to hand it over, because Burnett was always going to get the next guy in spite of all the contrary evidence.
See, Girardi had become more realistic when it came to Burnett, who'd signed a big contract with the Yankees and then become utterly mediocre. Burnett seemed to flail against the injustice of it all, even the self-inflicted injustice, so what was so-so became poor, and what was poor became ghastly, to the point where this start against the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday night was made necessary only because of Friday's rains.
Otherwise, Burnett, due $16.5 million a year, every year, for the past three years and the next two, would be deployed during blowouts only.
When Girardi re-assembled his rotation, however, that left Game 4 open, and that meant Burnett. And when the Yankees lost Games 2 and 3, that meant Burnett in an elimination game.
In the largest picture, Burnett is 34-35 as a Yankee. Smaller, 21-26 with an ERA above 5 the last two seasons. Smallest, he'd had to trim seven runs off his August ERA to get to 4.30 in September, and then when he took the mound for Game 4 he'd thrown only five pitches in the previous nine days.
"It was a little nerve-wracking," Burnett admitted.
Pitching against the Tigers first, the offseason second, his reputation third and New Yorkers' fears fourth, A.J. Burnett persisted. He wrestled with some early curveballs, hit some bat barrels, walked some batters, and stood numbly as his center fielder, Curtis Granderson(notes), made two remarkable defensive plays – one in the first inning and another in the sixth (the latter moments after Burnett left the game).
The Yankees beat the Tigers, 10-1. They forced a Game 5, Thursday night in the Bronx. For that, they can thank Burnett. Not Burnett alone, of course, but without him they're perhaps in a shootout with the Tigers, and the bullpen doesn't line up quite so prettily, and after 5 2/3 innings there aren't six guys on the mound telling him what a wonderful, season-saving thing he'd done.
"That's probably the first time I've ever smacked a manager on the butt," Burnett said with a grin. "I didn't know I did it. It was probably a little 'thank you' for all the stuff he's done for me."
Girardi, who for days had insisted Burnett would pitch well, had told him that this was a great performance. That he was proud of him. Then he'd reinforced his words by thumping Burnett, and Burnett goosed his manager, and the pregame visions of Burnett's exit looked nothing at all like this.
"Joe has had my back after all the ups and downs," Burnett said. "He's always been positive."
When he departed with a runner at first base, Burnett had allowed just a run. He'd walked four, three (one intentionally) in an edge-of-a-nightmare first inning. Behind him, the bullpen readied. That was before his curveball started to behave. And, along with a lively fastball, it became a reliable weapon as he pushed through the middle of the Tigers' order – Delmon Young(notes), Miguel Cabrera(notes) and Victor Martinez(notes) – three times.
"I was overthrowing it early," Burnett said of the curveball. "I was overthrowing a lot early. I realized I just needed to get it over the plate and not try to make it better than it was. … It was a matter of finding it. My hook, the more I throw it, the better it's going to be. You can't put it in the back pocket. You have to keep throwing it and find it. That's what we did."
In a game he neither dominated nor surrendered, in a ballpark ready to celebrate the coming American League Championship Series, Burnett simply won.
New Yorkers maybe won't know what to do with this. They've been hating on Burnett for so long, what's a town to do with him now?
He just extended their season by a game, at least. If they lose Thursday night, if the postseason goes on without them, it won't be A.J.'s fault.
Hell, he'll have gotten them there. His head got out of the way, his stuff took over, he got 17 outs and helped clear the stadium, even as Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" chased Tigers fans into the streets.
Remember when he signed that contract Yankees fans feared he wouldn't be able to make every start. Soon after, they were afraid he would, perhaps never more than Game 4 against the Tigers.
"Trust me," Derek Jeter(notes) said, "I'm pretty sure all New York fans will remember this game as opposed to some of the other games. A.J. expects a lot of himself. He's hard on himself, which I think is good at times. But, today, like I say, you couldn't ask him to do anything more. … He's the reason we get an opportunity to play on Thursday."
Burnett would credit the men behind him. So dejected in defeat (which has meant a lot of dejection), he was gracious in victory. The defense, the opportunity, the trust, it was all important to him.
So, the guy comes for the ball, you give him the ball. And maybe a little something extra.
Other popular stories on Yahoo! Sports:
• Fantasy Football video: Sit stars with injury ties
• Andy Roddick gets snippy over retirement question
• Study uses Tim Tebow to support crying in football