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Burnett silences his critics in Fall Classic

Burnett silences his critics in Fall Classic

NEW YORK -- The prevailing thought heading into the World Series was that if any segment of manager Joe Girardi's stone-wall rotation might crack, it was all but certain to be A.J. Burnett.

That's no condemnation of Burnett's skills, so much as a nod to his self-admittedly fragile emotions. At times, Burnett has shown an inability to keep his brain in check, muttering to himself on the mound and allowing a stray hit or error to spiral out of control.

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In a critical Game 2, there was no telling how Burnett might react. The Yankees simply hoped it would look something like this.

Rather than cave under the pressure, Burnett thrived, outdueling Pedro Martinez and vaulting the Yankees to a 3-1 victory, evening up this best-of-seven World Series on the eve of a train ride to Philadelphia.

"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," he said.

Though Burnett was his typical inefficient self early in the game, needing 61 pitches to complete his first three innings, he fell into an indestructible rhythm shortly thereafter. Strikeouts of Raul Ibanez and Matt Stairs punctuated Burnett's seventh and final inning, before his most important feat of the night: handing the ball directly to Mariano Rivera, without the aid of a middle man.

Now, Burnett knows he has silenced the critics. Throwing to personal catcher Jose Molina (and once more justifying that pairing), Burnett submitted his third quality start in four postseason attempts, striking out nine and walking two.

"That's the way he's been doing it since probably the middle of July," Molina said. "We try to do our best to calm him down, and you saw him tonight. He got people on base and he didn't care. He knew he could get the next people out."

He was, in effect, Burnett without the jitters, a man capable of spotting fastballs, dropping curves in for strikes and never caving to the Phillies.

And part of the credit must go to the enemy.

GRAND STATEMENT
Making his first World Series start, right-hander A.J. Burnett allowed just one run on four hits over seven dominating innings.
Series IP H R BB KS
ALDS, Game 2 6 3 1 5 6
ALCS, Game 2 6 1/3 3 2 2 4
ALCS, Game 5 6 8 6 3 3
WS, Game 1 7 4 1 2 9
Totals 25 1/3 18 10 12 22

Prior to Game 2, Burnett was walking through the home clubhouse when he noticed Wednesday's winning pitcher, Cliff Lee, giving an interview on a nearby television. Burnett stopped to listen as Lee, a fellow Arkansas native, preached about trusting his stuff and pitching with confidence.

"All I told myself last night and today was the same thing," Burnett said. "I went out tonight with confidence, and the game just rolled by. I was in a good rhythm."

So was Martinez, a pitcher who Burnett relished facing. But like CC Sabathia in Game 1, Martinez could not match the efforts of his counterpart. Burnett's fastball was too fast, his curve too sharp, his demeanor too stoic.

It was the first World Series game of his career and the biggest game of his life, and admittedly, Burnett was a bit dazzled by the flashbulbs and the celebrities and the 50,181 fans in the stands. But rather than let that swell overcome him, Burnett simply focused.

"It was way more than what I thought," Burnett said of the atmosphere. "You try to prepare for yourself for these games and this city and this crowd and the team you're going up against -- that's an outstanding lineup right there. But I think I fed off the crowd tonight. They were up every time I got one strike, they were up every time I got two, and instead of overthrowing, I kind of just stayed within myself and they started to cheer a lot. They were cheering all the time, but when I struck guys out, they really got loud, so I was just trying to keep that going for them."

The key was the curveball, complete with nasty bite. "It was on," Burnett said of the pitch, after moving it in, around and below the strike zone at will, three times striking out Phillies slugger Ryan Howard with it. During Howard's third at-bat, Burnett threw nothing but curves. Howard stared at all five of them, watching the fifth consecutive hook break over the plate for strike three.

As it stands, Burnett is now 1-0 in four postseason games, with a 3.55 ERA. Take out a forgettable first inning in Anaheim last week and that mark would stand at 2.13.

"He had it all working," third baseman Alex Rodriguez said. "That's as good as he's thrown the ball all year."

Not bad for a postseason debut.

"Nothing compares to today," Burnett said. "That was the funnest I've ever had on the baseball field."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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