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Burnett sends Yanks, series back to Bronx

A.J. Burnett #34 of the New York Yankees

A.J. Burnett #34 of the New York Yankees throws a pitch against the Detroit Tigers in the first inning. (Oct. 4, 2011) Credit: Getty Images

DETROIT

So, the Yankee whom many want, not without merit, out of New York?

You can thank him for bringing 2011 baseball back to New York.

Sure, A.J. Burnett received sufficient help from his friends in the road grays last night, in American League Division Series Game 4 at Comerica Park. But credit the mercurial righthander for his doing his job well enough, and award points to his manager Joe Girardi for knowing when he'd seen enough A.J.

And, now that they've saved their season, give the Yankees the edge as they return to the Bronx for Thursday night's winner-take-all Game 5, featuring Ivan Nova against Doug Fister, following a 10-1 thumping of the Tigers to even the series at two games apiece.

"I was proud of what he did," Girardi said. "In a must-win situation for us, he pitched one of his best games of the year."

"A.J. deserves all of the credit," Derek Jeter said. "He shut down a tough Tigers team. He's the reason we're playing in New York on Thursday."

A humble-sounding Burnett said, "We don't win the game tonight without our defense," and that's a sound argument. Nevertheless, he did his part, more than meeting the low expectations that had been established for him.

What makes Burnett so confounding is how he can veer from cold to hot and back just in the span of one start, and he provided yet another sample for baseball anthropologists to study at a later date. The Yankees, trailing the best-of-five series by a 2-1 margin, turned to Burnett only because Friday night's rain messed up their original plan of a three-man rotation, and because Phil Hughes' back acted up in September, and because Bartolo Colon ran out of gas, and because . . .

Well, you get the idea. Plan A.J. didn't constitute Plan A.

And yet, with nowhere else to turn, the Yankees endured a terrifying first inning, with a wild Burnett (three walks) getting bailed out when Curtis Granderson leaped to overcome a bad read and snare Don Kelly's line drive, to enjoy a relatively tranquil second, third, fourth and fifth.

How little margin for error did Burnett and the Yankees have on this night? Girardi began warming up Cory Wade in the first inning as Burnett struggled with his command. Had Kelly's hit sailed over Granderson's head . . . "Well, I wouldn't have gotten him up" without an intention to use him, Girardi said.

Jeter's two-run, third-inning double gave Burnett a cushion, and when Detroit's Victor Martinez ripped a solo homer to right in the fourth, the Yankees countered with two more runs in the fifth.

The best news of all for the Yankees may be that Girardi finally seems to have gotten the hang of managing Burnett.

Remember when Burnett started Game 4 of last year's American League Championship Series against Texas and pitched a respectable first five innings, only to blow up in the sixth?

On this night -- his first postseason start since that game -- when Burnett gave up a two-out single to Kelly in the sixth, Girardi yanked him for Rafael Soriano, who retired Jhonny Peralta when Granderson made a brilliant, diving, inning-ending catch on a fly ball to left-centerfield.

"You make the move when you think it's the right time," Girardi said.

"It doesn't matter what you do in the past," Jeter said. "Every postseason game presents a new opportunity."

We've seen too much of Burnett now to think that one decent game gains him any sort of redemption. But it should boost his confidence, looking forward. For if the Yankees prevail Thursday, they're going to need Burnett again in the next round.

"It was a big game," Burnett said, and it would've been a very different sort of "big" had Bad A.J. appeared on this night.

New York Sports