The Yankees have a reputation of signing big name free agents and piling up World Series titles. But save for one season, the Yankees have fallen short of the title every year since 2000. And many of the big contracts have disappointed in the long run.
The Bronx Bombers almost found themselves in a giant hole in the 2009 World Series. But they were rescued by A. J. Burnett, a pitcher who save for that game looked like the personification of a bad signing.
Going into 2009, the mighty Yankees had not won a single post season series since the Red Sox stunned them in the 2004 ALCS. With Joe Torre gone to LA, the Yankees missed the post season altogether in the final year of Yankee Stadium and the first season for manager Joe Girardi.
With owner George Steinbrenner’s health failing, the team spent big and abandoned the patient “develop the pitching staff” approach from 2007 and 2008. In came sluggers Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher as well as Cy Young contender CC Sabathia. Burnett was also acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays and the fortified Yankees were ready.
After a slow start, the Yankees clicked and won the Division with 103 wins and swept Minnesota in the Division Series, getting the monkey off of their back and advancing in the post season.
The Angels challenged the Yankees but in the end, it was an old fashioned Northeast World Series between New York and Philadelphia.
A pair of former Indian Cy Young Award winners faced off in the opener. Cliff Lee topped Sabathia and the defending World Champion Phillies had a 1-0 lead. Pedro Martinez was ready to go in Game 2. The future Hall of Famer was a shell of his former self, but the potent Philadelphia lineup seemed poised to jump all over Burnett.
The free agent pick up did not have a bad year but he had a disastrous August that was fresh on Yankee fans’ mind. So was the thrashing he endured by the Angels in Game 5 of the ALCS.
With the specter of a 2-0 hole going back to Philadelphia and at least one more Cliff Lee start, the pressure on Burnett was intense.
A ground rule double by Raul Ibanez and an infield hit by Matt Stairs put the Yankees in an early 1-0 second inning hole. Pedro made it through 3 inning unscathed before allowing a game tying homer to Teixiera.
The Phillies would get on base against Burnett but could not cash in the runners. Jayson Werth was picked off one inning. Ryan Howard struck out with runners in scoring position in another.
In the sixth, Burnett faced the mighty heart of the Phillies order and got Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth in order.
When eventual series MVP Hideki Matsui homered with 2 outs and 2 strikes in the 6th, the Yankees finally had a lead.
In the 7th, Burnett once again got the Phillies in order, getting Pedro Feliz to ground out to end the inning. He had gone 7 innings, 4 hits, 1 run and 9 strikeouts. Eventually the Yankees gave Mariano Rivera an insurance run and the series was tied heading to Philadelphia.
The Yankees took a pair of wild games before Burnett got his chance to close out the World Series in 5. His luck ran out as he could not record an out in the third and the Phillies sent the series back to New York where the Yankees won in 6.
The rest of Burnett’s time in New York was rough. A pair of season where his ERA spiked above 5 saddled him with a “Free Agent Bust” label. Eventually he was dumped by the Yankees who picked up his salary while he played (and had success) in Pittsburgh.
But anyone who tries to totally dismiss Burnett’s time in New York needs to admit one fact: Had he not won Game 2, the Yankees were probably going to lose the World Series.
They have not even played in a World Series since, let alone win one. Imagine a world where the Red Sox had won 3 World Series since the last Yankees title. That almost happened.
And for that reason, A. J. Burnett is the unsung post season hero of October 29.