Ever since the Texas Rangers defeated the Rays in Game 5 of the ALDS, I have sensed an odd defeatist attitude building among Yankees fans. I’m sure you’ve heard this refrain by now:
“The Rangers are going to win the Lee games, and then there’s the AJ game. They just need to win one of the other games.”
This line of thinking has lead some to suggest that the Yankees should pitch AJ Burnett in Game 3, limiting the impact of a Lee gem or a Burnett blowup to one game (this is now rendered moot by the fact that CC is not being used on 3 days rest). While this sounds logical in theory, this defeatist attitude has two underlying assumptions that are faulty:
1) The Yankees cannot beat Cliff Lee.
2) The Yankees are underdogs in Game 4 with Burnett on the hill.
Let’s address these in order.
1) Lee is a great pitcher, and is on the short list for best pitcher in the game. That does not mean he is unbeatable. He had an ERA of 3.18 (FIP of 2.58) on the season, and pitched pretty poorly down the stretch. The Yankees beat him in August by getting to him late and then scoring off the Rangers bullpen. Even if he pitches a complete game, he’s just as likely as not to give up 2 or 3 runs, particularly against this offense in this ballpark. The Yankees just need a good pitching performance from Andy Pettitte to keep them in the game, something that is certainly within the realm of possibility.
Are the Yankees the underdog in Game 3? Absolutely. But it is not nearly as clear cut as many are making it out to be.
2) I cannot sit here and make an argument that “Good AJ” is likely to show up, because his performance this season suggests that there is a good chance that “Bad AJ” tries to make an appearance on Tuesday night in the Bronx. That said, Tommy Hunter is far from a stud himself, as his FIP is actually worse than that of Burnett. He profiles very similarly to Brian Duensing without the benefit of being a lefty. Hunter pitches to contact, a strategy that often fails miserably against a lineup as patient and powerful as the one the Yankees will present. Additionally, Yankee Stadium is not exactly the sort of ballpark in which a righty wants to be pitching to contact.
Another important point is that the Yankees are carrying two longmen on the ALCS roster almost exclusively to address the possibility of a Burnett blowup. I’d guess that he will be on a very short leash, and it will be either “good AJ” or “pulled AJ” that we see. With the game in Yankee Stadium, Burnett on a short leash, and the Yankee lineup matching up well with Hunter, I would put my money on New York in Game 4.
The Yankees should not be looking to concede postseason games simply because Cliff Lee is awesome and AJ Burnett is wildly inconsistent. They have given themselves a good chance to win both games, which is absolutely the correct approach to take to a playoff series. I wish Yankees fans had as much confidence in their team as Joe Girardi has.