NEW YORK -- If Yankees manager Joe Girardi could have sketched out a best-case scenario prior to Game 2, it probably would have been itemized something like this: A quality start from A.J. Burnett, just enough timely hitting for his club to finally see a lead in this World Series, and a seamless bridge from Burnett to closer Mariano Rivera that would include no additional stops in between.
What might have initially been wishful thinking for Girardi played out in the form of reality on Thursday night. Burnett went seven strong innings, allowing only one run to dent to the scoreboard, and paved the way directly to the best closer in postseason history.
Really, there's no better formula for the Yankees -- who now sit three wins shy of a 27th World Series championship following their 3-1 win over the Phillies in Game 2 -- than such. It's one that sidesteps the team's only glaring concern -- the bullpen.
Though the Yankees hit the road with the Series tied at 1-1, the club is 2-for-2 in the quality-start department, which will be key moving forward. CC Sabathia delivered a seven-inning start during which he gave up just two runs in a Game 1 loss that could by no means be pinned on him. And Burnett was masterful in Game 2.
"You look at this time of year, you're going to see a good pitcher every night," Girardi said. "We had this in mind when we went and got both [Sabathia and Burnett]. We felt it was important to build up our rotation, and that's exactly what our ownership and our front office did."
Specifically in these first two games, though, having the duo pitch so effectively meant that Girardi could avoid having to go to his bullpen early. And on Thursday, he avoided having to go to it at all outside of Rivera, who no manager would hesitate sending to the mound.
It's no secret that New York's middle relievers have had their share of issues, evidenced most recently on Wednesday, when a combined five of them allowed four runs in two innings. In doing so, a potentially manageable two-run deficit morphed into a six-run advantage for the Phillies.
Take out Rivera's appearances during the regular season and the rest of the Yankees' 'pen posted an unexceptional 4.23 ERA. Rivera finished with an ERA of 1.76. That discrepancy has been much the same in the postseason, too. Rivera's 0.71 ERA this month stands in stark contrast to the 4.58 ERA held by the rest of the relief corps.
Most career World Series saves
In other words, if it's not Rivera, it's not guaranteed.
"This bullpen that is constructed now has been really, really good for us all year, and at times, you're going to have some hiccups," Girardi said. "But that doesn't mean that you don't stop believing in them and understand the type of stuff that they have and the job that they can do. Obviously, at times we have struggled."
If the Yankees can take the minimal two steps -- starter to Rivera -- and bypass everything in between, history has shown it's nearly a guaranteed win. Rivera's become the master of the two-inning save, doing it on Thursday for the 14th time in the postseason. Overall, he has blown just one World Series save in 11 opportunities, that coming back in 2001.
"We do whatever it takes to win -- six outs, four outs, whatever," Rivera said. "It doesn't matter. We have to go there, battle, fight, do our job, make plays."
The good news is that Andy Pettitte, who will start Game 3 for the Yankees, is very much in position to pitch deep into the game and therefore minimize the potential influence of his bullpen. The all-time postseason leader in wins has pitched at least six innings in each of his three starts already this postseason. He went that deep in 25 of 33 starts during the regular season.
"Pitching dominates," shortstop Derek Jeter succinctly put it. "No one is going to come out and score a ton of runs. Good pitching's going to beat good hitting."
And if the Yankees can get that good pitching from their starters, everything else will likely fall right into place.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.