DETROIT — With the season on the line and no better options, the Yankees sent A.J. Burnett to the mound and hoped for the best.
New York's $82.5 million enigma came through when his team needed him most.
With the help of a huge first-inning catch by Curtis Granderson, Burnett pitched effectively into the sixth, and the Yankees routed the Detroit Tigers 10-1 Tuesday night to send their AL playoff series back to the Bronx for a decisive fifth game.
"It doesn't make a difference what you've done in the past," Derek Jeter said. "We wanted him to go out there and pitch well. Trust me, I'm pretty sure all the New York fans will remember this game as opposed to some of the other games."
The Yankees didn't plan to start Burnett in this series. Not after he posted a 5.15 ERA during the regular season, the third-worst in the majors among qualifying pitchers.
But New York didn't have much of a choice after Game 1 was suspended by rain Friday and took two days to finish. So Burnett it was.
New York's worst fears appeared justified in the first. In fact, the Yankees' bullpen was already stirring when Burnett walked three hitters, one intentionally, to bring up Don Kelly with two outs and the bases loaded.
Kelly hit a hard line drive to center field. Granderson appeared to misjudge the ball at first before backing up and jumping at the last second to rob Kelly of an extra-base hit.
"If I miss that one, there's nothing there but the wall back there and some ivy," Granderson said. "Who knows what could have happened at that point – especially with it being the first inning. We get behind in an elimination game, here in Detroit, the fans stay in it."
Instead, the hopeful vibe at Comerica Park subsided quickly. Jeter rebounded from a game-ending strikeout Monday, putting the Yankees ahead to stay with a two-run double in the third. Granderson also had an RBI double and New York broke it open with six runs in the eighth.
After helping his beleaguered pitcher out of that early jam, Granderson added another spectacular catch a short while later.
"We don't win that game tonight without defense," Burnett said.
Burnett allowed a run and four hits in 5 2-3 innings before turning it over to the bullpen.
"I told you, his stuff is so good that he can shut you down. I thought we hit some balls pretty decent. He wasn't real sharp early. We had our shot," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "That was a big play in the first inning."
Game 5 is Thursday night in New York and rookie right-hander Ivan Nova, who shut down the Tigers in the opener, will start against Doug Fister. Both came on as relievers Saturday after Game 1 began Friday night but was halted after 1 1/2 innings.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi said ace CC Sabathia, who started Monday, should be available in relief for Game 5.
Granderson was on the Detroit team that went to the World Series in 2006, but the Tigers traded the popular outfielder to the Yankees as part of a three-team deal after the 2009 season.
Max Scherzer, a pitcher Detroit received in the trade, left his mark on this series with an impressive Game 2 start. Then it was Granderson's turn.
After hitting 41 home runs during the regular season to become an MVP contender, Granderson made the biggest impact Tuesday with his glove.
Burnett is in the third season of an $82.5 million, five-year contract. He's been largely a disappointment, but he gave the Yankees the start they needed while facing elimination.
"Once that first inning was over after Curtis saved me, I was able to take a breath," Burnett said. "Then our offense took over."
Detroit starter Rick Porcello hit Jorge Posada with a pitch to start the third, and Russell Martin followed with a single. Brett Gardner struck out looking and disputed the call with plate umpire Dan Iassogna for a bit, but Jeter hit a drive to deep center that speedy Austin Jackson wasn't able to run down. Both runners scored on the double to give New York a 2-0 lead.
After holding the Tigers hitless through three innings, Burnett allowed Victor Martinez's leadoff homer in the fourth. One out later, Jhonny Peralta doubled down the left-field line, but Burnett struck out Alex Avila and Wilson Betemit to end the inning.
Martin and Gardner led off the fifth with singles. After Jeter bunted into a force play at third, Granderson doubled to right, driving in a run. Alex Rodriguez added a sacrifice fly to make it 4-1.
Porcello allowed four runs and five hits in six innings.
"I thought Porcello really threw the ball well. He made a bad pitch to Derek on the double," Leyland said. "The ball had good life. He actually pitched well, to hold that team down like he did."
Rafael Soriano relieved Burnett in the sixth, and Peralta lifted a fly to left-center. Granderson came sprinting over and made a diving catch even more impressive than the first one, sliding across the outfield grass on his belly after making the grab. He appeared shaken up for a bit afterward, but stayed in the game.
Teammates stood and clapped in the dugout as Granderson trotted in. Burnett came over to give the center fielder a hug.
The Yankees had lost five straight postseason road games when facing elimination, starting with Game 7 of the 2001 World Series at Arizona. New York was eliminated in Game 4 at Detroit in the 2006 division series, but the Tigers couldn't pull off a repeat performance.
The Yankees broke it open with six runs in the eighth. Detroit reliever Al Alburquerque balked in a run, and the Yankees added two more on singles by pinch-hitter Jesus Montero and Gardner.
Daniel Schlereth threw a wild pitch later in the inning that bounced all the way over the screen, allowing another run to score. Robinson Cano's two-run single sent fans at Comerica Park toward the exits.
"We let it get out of hand," Leyland said.