So far in the ALCS the Yankees have played about as badly as one can imagine and the Rangers have played extremely well. The end result is a 2-1 deficit that the Yankees are lucky to have. Texas has thoroughly out-performed the Bombers in 26 of the series' 27 innings.
The Yankee Universe now finds itself in a situation it has feared for for some time now: A.J. Burnett must come up in a big spot to keep the series competitive. Although the Yankees will continue to breathe if Burnett can't get the job done, the difference between being down 3-1 versus having a series tied at 2-2 is tremendous, particularly given the Yankees' poor play.
With that in mind, it is important to remember that as bad as A.J. has been this year, the team has a few things going for it:
- A.J. performed well in a number of big playoff games at home in 2009. Sure, last October seems like a decade ago, but for those who have the presence of mind to remember that far back (and no one blames you if you don't) Burnett pitched out of his mind in Game Two of the ALDS, Game Two of the ALCS and Game Two of the World Series. He kept the Yankees in close games long enough for the offense to put the team over the hump, with some help from Alex Rodriguez. If A.J. had imploded in any one of those three games the 2009 season may have played out differently. He didn't, and we all got to enjoy number 27. We know he has it in him.
- Although his numbers are still bad, A.J. pitches better at home. Burnett's 4.59 home ERA isn't worth his $16.5 million salary, but it is better than his 5.76 road ERA. Everyone would love for seven innings of two-run baseball from A.J., but who wouldn't be happy if he provides six innings of three-run ball? That's about what he has provided in 2010 at home. Such a performance would keep the Yankees in the game.
- Finally, Tommy Hunter is not a front-line starter. He's a 24-year-old who posted a 4.48 road ERA and a 4.41 2nd-half ERA. It may be depressing that both numbers are still better than what A.J. gave the Yankees at home this season, but they aren't that much better. Fortunately, the Yankees have faced him before too, and he wasn't very good, allowing two runs over five innings in a no-decision. He's just as likely to implode as Burnett is, which doesn't say much for A.J., but should reassure fans about the team's chances tonight.
With all that in mind, the real pressure is on the offense tonight (and A.J., but really the offense, because A.J. is a freakin' head case). This is the worst pitcher the Rangers have sent to the mound so far in the ALCS. He presents the Bombers with their best chance of being the Bombers. If the team seizes that opportunity, and Burnett performs to the level he has on average at home this season, then there remains every reason for the Yankees to win this game. If the team can knot the series at 2-2 then the first four games become ancient history, with CC Sabathia taking the ball at home on normal rest in game five, a proposition that bodes well for the good guys.