ARLINGTON, Texas – This is a ruse. It has to be. Some old-fashioned New York Yankees gamesmanship. The Yankees do not shy away from starting pitchers on three days’ rest. They are aggressive. They chase championships. They play for today. They do things the right way. They do not, under any circumstances, start A.J. Burnett(notes) in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.
And yet following the 7-2 shellacking the Texas Rangers laid Saturday on the Yankees in Game 2 of the ALCS, the series’ focus shifted past Game 3 – Cliff Lee(notes) is starting, and the Rangers taking a 2-1 series lead is right there with death, taxes and Ripken – and onto the middle contest, the swing game, where Mr. Unexplained Black Eye himself is set to pitch.
The Yankees swore up and down he was their Game 4 plan.
"A.J. Burnett," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said.
"We are on rotation," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
If this isn't a ruse – if they're actually telling the truth and planning on throwing Burnett, who hasn't pitched since Oct. 2, and who, over the season's two final months, went 1-7 with a 6.61 ERA, and whose bullpen session this week looked like the love child of Nuke LaLoosh and Ricky Vaughn, and who, even worse, left that session with arm soreness – the Yankees are committing seppuku on their season.
Right now, the Yankees' rotation is a mess. Sabathia bombed out of Game 1 after a long layoff. Phil Hughes(notes) did the same in Game 2. And while Andy Pettitte(notes) is the winningest pitcher in postseason history, he must face Lee, postseason deity. Even if the Yankees beat Lee, the mere idea of using an abject flake for such an integral game is insulting to the rest of this team that wants to win the Yankees' 28th championship.
The plan is quite simple: Pitch Sabathia on three days' rest in Game 4, return with Hughes on short rest for Game 5, go back to Pettitte on three days with Game 6 and, if necessary, send Sabathia out again in the do-or-die game against Lee.
Sabathia is happy to do so. He said as much Saturday. In 2008, Milwaukee used him for four consecutive starts on three days' rest, and he thrived until the final outing. Last year, the Yankees pitched him short twice more and won a World Series. He threw just 94 pitches in Game 1, and though he's scheduled to throw a bullpen session Sunday, Sabathia said that wouldn't preclude him from starting two days later.
"Whenever [Girardi] wants me to pitch," he said, "I'll pitch."
Pettitte, too. Though 38, he went on three days' rest last October, and he's done so five other times in the playoffs. This might be his final season. He doesn't want regrets.
“I’m as rested as I possibly could be," Pettitte said. "My arm feels so fresh, my groin injury, being out two months, that would not be an issue for me at all."
The biggest factor is Hughes. With four innings pitched Saturday, he has logged 187 1/3 this season, nearly a 100-inning jump from last season. An injury to Hughes scares the Yankees. They already cringe at having flushed $16.5 million on Burnett and $11.5 million on Javier Vazquez(notes). Hughes continuing to pitch because of Burnett and Vazquez's ineptitude only compounds the pain of wasted money.
"When I went out there for the second inning, something just went wrong," said Hughes, who allowed seven runs on 10 hits. "It's tough to try to figure out what it is, then try to make that adjustment. … It is kind of a helpless feeling."
Hughes is 24, and as much as the Yankees don't want to mistreat or misuse him, more than any team they understand that championships require sacrifice. If Hughes were to struggle in Game 5, they could yank him and use Burnett. Hughes threw 88 pitches Saturday, a low enough number to likely keep him from incurring an injury by going on three days rest.
Even if the ALCS extends to seven games in this scenario, the World Series sets up fine for the Yankees. Pettitte could start Game 1 on full rest, with Sabathia on the same in Game 2 and Hughes in Game 3. Or the Yankees could turn to Sabathia on short rest for Game 1 and have him available in similar scenarios for Games 4 and 7, with the others going once on extra rest and a second time short rest.
Whatever the case, they cannot let Burnett go in Game 4. The Rangers are outpitching New York – "I don't think we were fazed by their mystique to begin with," said Texas outfielder David Murphy(notes), who doubled and homered off Hughes, two of seven extra-base hits – and no matter how explosive the Yankees' offense can be, they realize Burnett's combustibility only exceeds it.
For some reason, Girardi seemed annoyed at the line of questioning following the game. He claimed starting Sabathia in Game 4 was "not something that we have discussed," which can't be true because neither he nor the Yankees' management would be so irresponsible. Between Burnett's arm and head, there's enough missing to necessitate a contingency plan.
"I'm worried about Game 3," Girardi said. "I don't get too far ahead. So we'll worry about Game 3, and if we worry about Game 4 before Game 3, we are going to be in trouble."
Game 3 is worrisome, sure, as would be any with Lee on the mound. Game 4, however, is the one that will decide this series. The Yankees can have a chance. They can be aggressive and chase a championship and play for today and do things the right way.
Or they can start A.J. Burnett.