He certainly was on Thursday night. Burnett was terrific and the game couldn't have been much bigger unless it was a Game 7. Behind Burnett's excellent work, the New York Yankees beat the Philadelphia Phillies, 3-1, and evened the Series at 1-1.
Burnett had enough of a resume for the Yankees to invest $82.5 million in his contract. His stuff has always been among the best in baseball. But he had zero postseason experience. As a member of the Florida Marlins, he was injured in 2003 when that club won the World Series. He subsequently spent three seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays, but they never qualified for the postseason during that time.
So here he was, with a career that spanned 11 big leagues seasons, a postseason rookie. His first two starts for the Yanks in the 2009 postseason were fine, although he did not receive a decision in either one. His third start, in what could have been the American League Championship Series clincher against the Angels, was not good enough.
The Yankees needed him to find his higher level in Game 2 of World Series. They had lost the opener, generating no offense against Cliff Lee. Losing the first two games at home in the Series is almost always a recipe for defeat. The Yankees may be a resilient group, but nobody wants to head into three straight road games in a World Series down two games.
Burnett took care of that concern. He pitched seven innings, giving up one run on four hits, walking two and striking out nine. All of his pitches worked, but his curveball was devastating.
"You know what, he was good," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "He pitched a heck of a game. I felt like Burnett did a tremendous job."
Burn, baby, Burn
|ALDS Game 2||Twins||6||1||6||4-3 win*|
|ALCS Game 2||Angels||6 1/3||2||4||4-3 win*|
|ALCS Game 5||Angels||6-plus||6||3||7-6 loss|
|WS Game 2||Phillies||7||1||9||3-1 win|
|Total||N/A||25 1/3||10||22||1-0, 3.60|
"He was great tonight," Yankee manager Joe Girardi said. "He gave up the one run, but he gave us seven extremely strong innings and kept his pitch count down, and was able to work in and out with his fastball and throw his good curveball and get some good swings and misses."
The vast majority of the attention going into this game was directed toward the Phillies' starter, Pedro Martinez. Martinez has been high-profile for a long time and that's the way he has wanted it. His long-standing differences with the Yankees, formed during his years with the Red Sox, have long been matters of public record. And Martinez did what he could in an interview session on Wednesday to pump up the volume, critiquing the work of the New York media in their portrayals of him.
Martinez would supply the drama and the star power for this contest, because that's part of his deal, anyway. You almost got a sense of "Oh, by the way, A.J. Burnett is starting for the Yankees." The way things turned out, even though Martinez pitched well enough, it would be Burnett's work on this night that was more memorable.
For Burnett, it was a defining moment, an exceptional performance in the biggest start of his career.
"It means a lot," he said. "After [Game 1] I just wanted to come out and set the tone early and be very aggressive. My key was strike one tonight, I think. I threw a lot of first-pitch strikes and that allowed me to open up and expand the zone after that.
"I knew I had a big task ahead of me with Pedro on the mound, and I wanted to go out and pitch the best I could. ... Going up against Pedro, you know what he's going to offer. He's going to throw strikes and he's going to make our guys work a lot, and that's what he did tonight."
Of the untouchable curveball, Burnett said: "You know, it was on. It was on, and when I can throw that for strikes, it's a big difference. You saw that. We were able to get ahead, and I think earlier they were looking for it, and I was a little off with it down low as an 0-2 pitch. But once I started getting in the zone, it really opened up. That's big for me. You can ask anybody -- when he's throwing his hooks for strikes, it makes it a lot tougher."
The bottom line here for the Yankees was that even though their ace of aces, CC Sabathia, had lost in Game 1, they came back to tie the Series. They came back primarily on the strength of a top-shelf performance by A.J. Burnett. Is he a big-game pitcher? He answered that question with his performance in a World Series game that his team had to win.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.