Yankee fans are understandably antsy about A.J. Burnett starting tonight. We all know how horrible he can be, even if he sometimes shows flashes of brilliance. Starting him feels like a roll of the dice. Many have been quick to point out that the Tigers are throwing Rick Porcello to the mound tonight, who has only a slightly better performance record than 4.75 ERA sits against Burnett’s 5.15 ERA, although park factors give them both an identical ERA+. Its tempting to call this match-up 50/50 at best.
However, we know that the truth is different. The Yankees were a better team in baseball this season than the Detroit Tigers. They scored 80 more runs than the Tigers. They also allowed 68 fewer runs, while playing in a much tougher division. They did that not because of superior starting pitching (hey, they did pitch Burnett every 5th day), but because of a bullpen with an ERA of 3.12. Detroit’s bullpen managed just a 3.93. The Yankees won as many games in spite of their starting pitching, not because of it.
What’s my point? Tonight, A.J. Burnett has backup. Starting pitchers don’t win games, teams do. The superior Yankee offense, defense, and bullpen give the Yankee a real edge in the game tonight, even if Rick Porcello is a mildly better starting pitcher than A.J. Burnett. Burnett doesn’t have to go out and be perfect. He needs to grind it out for 5 or 6 innings, and hand a lead to the best bullpen in baseball. To get him there, all Teixeira and Cano and Granderson and Jeter and everyone else have to do is be themselves. If they hit like their season averages dictate, this game shouldn’t even be close.
There are few things in baseball better than a must-win game. But tonight we not only get to watch a must-win game, but we watch one with an underdog seeking redemption on the mound. We’re all dreading the start, but I think we’ll end up pleasantly surprised this time tomorrow.
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