You may think that it was pitcher A.J. Burnett who came through in the clutch last night to save the Yankees' season and force a deciding Game 5 in their American League Division Series with the Tigers. But you're wrong. It was me. The Bronx Bombers wouldn't have had a prayer last night had I not... well, first let me backtrack a bit.
I'm what you might call (and many of my loved ones have called) an obsessive Yankees fan. I'll hike to the Stadium on a cold, rainy night in May to watch them play Kansas City. I DVR spring training games. I read Yankees-related blogs. I check Derek Jeter's batting average daily. Between April and September, I can remain fairly calm during Yankee crises, knowing that the ship is generally righted in the end. After all, since 1995, the Yanks have won fewer than 90 games in the regular season only twice, and one of those seasons they won the World Series.
But in the postseason, I get a little, shall we say, tense. Lose four in a row in July and it's a small slump, a hiccup. Lose four in a row in October and you've got the historic 2004 ALCS collapse to the Red Sox, from which I have yet to fully recover. A lousy start by our ace, or a couple of key hitters slumping, can derail a best-of-five or best-of-seven series and lead to the worst of all possible outcomes: No more Yankee baseball until spring training.
In such situations, watching Yankees baseball is no longer fun. It becomes agony, for I am a pessimist extraordinaire. When the leaves start to turn and there's a chill in the air, every Yankees-related glass suddenly becomes half-empty, and every silver lining contains multiple dark clouds. C.C.'s going to have a lousy start. Jeter will surely strike out in the ninth with the winning run on base. Girardi's going to manage as if it's a best-of-50 game series instead of best-of-five, and trot out our most inconsistent relievers from the bullpen.
Oh, wait a minute. Those things actually did happen in our Game 2 and Game 3 losses to Detroit. So you can imagine why I donned my hairshirt and "The End Is Nigh" sandwich board when the Yankees' season came down to a certain Mr. Allan James Burnett, aka A.J., aka the worst pitcher in the history of the sport, according to more volatile Yankees enthusiasts. Signed for approximately 19 years and $47 billion before the 2009 season, A.J. had a decent run his first year in pinstripes, climaxed by a stirring win in the World Series against the Phillies. Since then, he's shown a curious inability to resemble anything approaching a major league pitcher after about May 31. Despite it all, however, the Yankees' front office and skipper Joe Girardi have steadfastly stood by their man. "He's got electric stuff," they've said. "We've got to get A.J. right," they'd solemnly intone after another shellacking. "We've got to get A.J. a one-way bus ticket out of the Bronx," we fans would mutter.
Originally signed to be a second starter behind ace C.C. Sabathia, A.J. hurled his way out of the postseason rotation and into the bullpen, where it was assumed he'd be used sparingly, if at all. But the baseball gods, proving they have a sense of humor, provided just the right mix of inclement weather, questionable decisions by Girardi, and glaring failures in clutch situations. We were down two games to one, and thanks to Friday night's rainout, our pitching staff was in enough disarray so the only possible starter for the do-or-die Game 4 was -- collective shudder -- A.J. Burnett.
Last night wasn't just Game Four of the ALDS, it also happened to be Date Night for me and my wife. As my fellow parents know, when you have a 15-month-old toddler, you can't let a date night go to waste. And I certainly wasn't about to use this one to watch the Yankees get clobbered en route to another ringless season. So instead of sulking in front of the tube, we decided to go stepping. We'd check out the new bar at the 21 Club, and eat, drink and make merry while A.J. uncorked his usual array of wild pitches and gopher balls.
Upon arriving at 21, I checked my phone to find that, in the bottom of the first, A.J. had already walked the bases loaded. I gleefully tweeted: "So glad I'm not watching the #Yankees right now. Enjoying a sensational Manhattan at 21, turning off phone now. Wait 'til next year! #AJSux." (Nice hashtag, right?)
Little did I know that, in my complete and utter confidence that the game and season were lost, to the point where I refused to even be a spectator to the carnage, I was invoking what a brilliant Yankees blog refers to as "reverse juju." As soon as I turned off my phone, A.J. somehow worked his way out of the inning without allowing a run, thanks in part to a spectacular catch by Curtis Granderson. And for the rest of the game, my absence gave the team strength. My lack of faith improved A.J.'s control. My despair brought A-Rod's bat back to life. My fore-ordained knowledge that the Yankees would lose paradoxically put them ahead. That's how reverse juju works. It's a gift that many fans have, and few can channel effectively. But for one magical night, I had the juju mojo.
For the record, I almost blew it for the Yanks. When we got home, I decided to turn on the TV just to have a peek, figuring the Tigers must be ahead by several hundred runs, at least. To my shock, I saw that the Yankees were winning 4-1 in the sixth, with Girardi at the mound, ready to give Burnett the hook and go to the bullpen. I quickly recalculated my worst-case scenarios and figured that, since A.J. had miraculously escaped unscathed, Girardi would surely call upon Rafael Soriano, whom I like to call "Lightning" because he can give up a lead faster than any reliever on the team. He comes in the game, Yankees are ahead. I go to the bathroom or head to the fridge, come back, boom, we're behind. The guy's a magician.
Then I thought, what if we somehow make it to the ninth inning with the lead intact, and Mariano Rivera, rusty from having thrown a grand total of three pitches in the last ten days, blows the game? Surely there could be no worse fate for a Yankee fan. I quickly turned off the TV and lay down to pacify my stomach with cool thoughts.
As it turned out, Girardi did call on Soriano, who somehow pitched an inning and a third without giving up a single home run, or a single hit, for that matter. And it turned out that Mariano wasn't needed, because the Yankees, sensing that I'd passed out from too much Whistlepig Rye whiskey, scored six runs in the 8th and wound up trouncing the Tigers, 10-1. My reverse juju had saved the day.
Tomorrow night is the all-or-nothing deciding game. With the series moving back to the Bronx, and rookie sensation Ivan Nova taking the mound for the Bombers, I'm having a hard time working up the reverse juju that proved so effective last night. But believe me, I'm working on it. The big question is, should I watch the game? And if not, should I go back to the 21 Club for a little extra juju? The bar may be less expensive than the dining room, but it ain't cheap. If any Yankee fans out there want to bankroll me, donations are welcome.
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