And what a game it was, with Burnett and Philadelphia starter Pedro Martinez daring each other to blink first, to crack slightly, to make consecutive bad pitches. When it was over, when Burnett and the Yankees had held tight to a 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 2 of the World Series, New York manager Joe Girardi still looked as if you could bounce subway tokens off the bulging veins in his neck.
"Extremely impressive. [Burnett] was great tonight," said Girardi, breathing slightly easier now that the Yankees can head down the turnpike with the World Series tied 1-1, and his team's bats itching to break out in Philadelphia's warm weather.
Game 2: Yankees 3, Phillies 1 | Box Score | Series Home
Who knew that it would be Burnett, of all players, who could relax the shoulders of New York's tightly wound manager? Burnett's outing – one run, four hits, nine strikeouts, two walks across seven innings – was so spectacular, his arsenal so nasty, it had observers wondering how he's ever lost a game. There are times when Burnett makes you question why the Yankees thought it wise to blow $82 million on him, and then there are games like Thursday on a cool, clear night in the Bronx, when the tattoo-covered, pie-tossing enigma is worth every cent.
"You try to prepare for yourself for these games and this city and this crowd and the team you're going up against, that's an outstanding lineup right there," Burnett said. "But I think I fed off the crowd tonight. They were up every time I got one strike, they were up every time I got two, and instead of over-throwing, I kind of just stayed within myself and they started to cheer a lot. They were cheering all the time, but when I struck guys out they really got loud, so I was just trying to keep that going for them."
Burnett and his personal catcher, Jose Molina, engaged in a few of their usual therapy sessions on the mound, but this time their conversations had to go something like this: "Hey, there's Kate!" "Did you hear Jay-Z and Alicia?" "Wonder if we can still make Nobu?" For some reason even Burnett can't quite explain, he's usually good for one wild inning, a meltdown that often ends with balls sailing toward the backstop, but it never came. He was all about throwing first-pitch strikes and heartbreaking curves and stuff that had more movement than Alicia Keys and Jay-Z combined. He threw 108 pitches and probably could have gone another inning if the Yankees didn't have Mariano Rivera, the ultimate comforter, ready for a six-out save.
"That was a beauty. We needed it," said Mark Teixeira, who tied the game 1-1 in the fourth by ripping a changeup off Martinez into the Yankees' bullpen in right field.
"A.J. was just on. That was incredible to watch," said Hideki Matsui, who golfed a two-out pitch at his knees in the sixth to put the Yankees up, 2-1.
We interrupt this well-deserved love fest to pick a few nits off Burnett's teammates. Alex Rodriguez, in particular, is ripe for questioning, which tends to happen this time of year. He had been so spectacular though the first two playoff rounds, practically carrying the Yankees to the World Series on his back. But now he is hitless in the Fall Classic, striking out three times for the second straight night to make it 0-for-8 in the Series, and you can tell the pressure is getting to him by the way he chomps his gum. What's happened to Kate Hudson's good luck Buddha beads? What becomes of the Yankees if his slump continues? These are pressing concerns for Gotham.
It was Rodriguez who also waved like a matador at Matt Stairs' sharp grounder in the second inning, the ball sailing past A-Rod's glove and allowing Raul Ibanez to score from second for an early 1-0 Philadelphia lead. If Burnett hadn't been so masterful, A-Rod and his pal Derek Jeter would share the evening's devil horns and tail. Jeter struck out three times, including a very non-Jeter-like at-bat in which he tried and failed a sacrifice with two strikes.
The drama reached its tipping point in the seventh inning, when Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel had his Grady Little moment and decided to allow Martinez to start the inning. Jerry Hairston Jr., who came into the night batting 10-for 27 against Martinez (but hadn't faced him since 2004), hit a flare to right, and with Brett Gardner pinch running for Hairston, Melky Cabrera singled, moving Gardner to third. Pedro was done, with zero outs, with runners on the corners, with old friend Jorge Posada at the plate.
Martinez pointed to the sky, walked to the dugout and cracked a smile that lit the night. He had pitched with a sniper's nerve and a mad scientist's guile, giving up homers to Teixeira and Matsui that were more the product of great swings than bad pitches. If Pedro isn't quite the most influential player to ever play at Yankee Stadium -- a hyperbolic boast on his part -- he sure is still one of the most compelling.
Naturally, as if the Babe and Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle and all the other influential ghosts got together and decided to have a little fun, Posada smashed a line drive off reliever Chan Ho Park, making it 3-1.
"I knew it was going to be crazy," Burnett said of Martinez. "I knew he was going to be on his game. I focus on myself, but you can't help but watch his game. It's the funnest I've had on the field."
Burnett toyed with the Phillies from the second inning on, Carlos Ruiz's double in the fifth one of his few blips. He struck out Howard staring at a backdoor curve in a breezy 1-2-3 sixth inning, and then turned the heat up even higher in the seventh. He whiffed both Ibanez and Stairs, again on pitches that made the heart stop, and topped the inning off by getting Pedro Feliz on a soft grounder to short.
"I went out tonight with confidence, and just, you know, the game just rolled by," Burnett said, after putting his first playoff win in the books. "I was in a good rhythm. Stairsy hit a good pitch to get his RBI but it never stopped me, and I just continued to stay in that rhythm and just continued to try to get strike one."
Can he do it again, on three days' rest? That's impossible to predict, considering we still don't know which Burnett is going to roll out of bed each morning – the one who needs coddling, or the one who oozes confidence. Burnett said he watched Cliff Lee's interview after the Philadelphia ace's brilliant Game 1 win here Wednesday, and he decided to channel the belief that all his pitches would work in harmony.
"Cliffy, he was a man against boys last night. He talked about confidence a lot, and that was huge for me tonight going up against Pedro because you know what he's going to offer," Burnett said. "He's going to throw strikes and he's going to make our guys work a lot, and that's what he did tonight."
Burnett was an antsy observer in his first World Series, sidelined with arm troubles in 2003 when his Florida team won it all. Postseason in the Bronx is a whole different animal. Burnett picked a fine time to earn his money.