Derek Jeter, Ryan Howard, Alex Rodriguez, Chase Utley — those were the players that were expected to shine in the World Series spotlight. One of them was supposed to emerge as the MVP of the Fall Classic when all was said and done.
But if the Yankees capture their 27th championship by winning Monday night’s Game 5, a man seldom mentioned in the MVP conversation before the series might be the favorite for the honor.
Prior to the first pitch of Game 1, A.J. Burnett was given less than 20-to-1 odds of taking home the hardware. He was at best a question mark for the Yankees, and potentially the Achilles’ heel that would allow the Phillies to win it all again.
But with his team down 1-0 in the series and in danger of dropping the first two Fall Classic games ever played at the new Yankee Stadium, New York’s $82.5 million man delivered his best outing in pinstripes last Thursday night.
Burnett hurled seven innings in Game 2, allowing just one run on four hits, striking out nine batters and walking only two. The 32-year-old’s patented wildness was nowhere to be seen. Instead, he displayed pinpoint command of a dynamic fastball and the ability to paint corners with a devastating curve.
After 108 pitches, 68 of which were strikes, Burnett yielded to Mariano Rivera, who secured a 3-1 New York victory with a six-out save. Burnett’s brilliance eliminated the two most obvious chinks in the Yankees’ armor — his own inconsistency, and the rickety bridge to Rivera — in one shot. His performance on Thursday alone was worthy of consideration for the honor that no one thought he could earn, because of its dramatic effect on the flow of the series.
By dominating the Phillies in Game 2, Burnett shifted the momentum back into the Yankees’ dugout, after the opening loss had handed it to the visitors. The Bombers rode that energy as their bats came alive, and used it to win the next two games in Philadelphia. The Yankees are now just one win away from their first title in nine years, and fittingly, Burnett has a chance to bring it home on Monday night.
Certainly, the cards are stacked against Burnett in Game 5. He is facing Cliff Lee, who tore through Joe Girardi’s lineup card with ease in Game 1. Burnett is also pitching on the road, where his ERA during the regular season (4.59) was more than a run higher than it was at home (3.51). And he is doing all of that on three days’ rest.
But Burnett has already defied expectations once in this World Series, and if he harnesses his arsenal the way he did in Game 2, building on the momentum he helped create that night, the Fall Classic may be over in five.
Should the Yankees prevail over the Phillies on Monday night behind another excellent effort from Burnett, he – not Jeter, not CC Sabathia, not even the resurgent A-Rod – will be the unlikely MVP who brought glory back to the Bronx.