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10/05/11 2:30 AM ET

Burnett proves doubters wrong in Game 4 win

DETROIT -- Normally, Joe Girardi will just signal towards the bullpen after taking a few steps out of the dugout, then reach out for the ball before getting to the pitcher's mound. Not much chat, all business.

This time, it was a little different.

This time, there was no initial signal from Girardi, no request for the ball as he approached his pitcher. With his team leading its do-or-die game by three in the sixth inning, the Yankees' skipper marched right to the mound and simply shot a steely-eyed glare at A.J. Burnett -- the beleaguered starter in the process of delivering the biggest win of the season.

"I just told him, 'Great job,' congratulated him," Girardi recalled. "I told people I felt good about him, and I did."

A.J. had just contributed the outing basically nobody outside the Yankees' clubhouse expected -- one run, 5 2/3 innings and in line for the win -- to push this American League Division Series to a decisive Game 5.

So just before Rafael Soriano would march out from the Comerica Park bullpen, Girardi, catcher Russell Martin and the four Yankees infielders gave A.J. some well-deserved praise. And as he walked back to the dugout, A.J. gave his skipper a surprising tap on his backside.

"That's probably the first time I've ever smacked a manager on the butt," Burnett said. "I didn't know I did it. It was probably a little 'Thank you' for all the stuff he's done for me."

"No, A.J.," Yankees fans were thinking at that point, "Thank you."

People tend to be a lot more gracious when the unexpected occurs. And this definitely qualifies as that.

The New York Post had run a back page headline that partly read "Would you trust your season to this man?" just below a picture of Burnett. Girardi already had a reliever warming up before Burnett gave up a run in the first inning. And heading into Tuesday, Yankees fans everywhere pretty much thought their season was over -- even though the man on the other side, Rick Porcello, was no world beater by any stretch.

Nobody wanted to see A.J. pitch this game.

Except A.J.

"He wants the ball," Martin said. "And when he's aggressive and he's throwing strikes, like he was tonight, he's really tough to beat."

"There was a look about him today," third baseman Alex Rodriguez added. "A poise."

A.J. wanted to believe. So much so that the night before Game 4, he watched video only of his triumphs -- like Game 2 of the 2009 World Series, or the May 5 start when he hurled five no-hit innings in this very ballpark and in this very matchup.

"You see yourself doing good, you do good," Burnett said. "I never go and watch a bad game, no matter how bad I do. I won't do it. Because I don't want to see myself failing. I want to see success."

One day, when the time comes for Burnett to make another important start, he'll reach into the archives and watch this one.

Yes, everything is different without Curtis Granderson's inning-ending catch with the bases loaded in the first. And, sure, the Yankees eventually ran away from this game with a six-run eighth inning against Jim Leyland's bullpen.

But it was A.J. who set the tone. It's not that he pitched great -- he allowed eight baserunners, didn't register a quality start and needed 81 pitches to get 17 outs -- it's that he gave the Yankees exactly what they needed.

Even with all the odds pointing against him.

Burnett had given up 12 runs in eight innings in his two previous road playoff starts, was pitching on eight days' rest and finished the season with a 7.66 ERA in his last 10 starts.

All of that led to a predictable first inning that saw him throw 14 of 21 pitches for balls, get behind on five of the six hitters he faced and only get out of a bases-loaded jam because of Granderson's acrobatic catch.

After Granderson reeled that ball in, Burnett shot the center fielder a little smirk as he walked back to the dugout. He was overthrowing, maybe a little over-amped. But he would then settle down.

"Once that first inning was over and Curtis saved me," Burnett said, "I was able to take a breath."

Then the man who posted a combined 5.20 ERA the last two years and recorded just 10 quality starts in 32 tries this season morphed into somebody else.

With a more deceptive curveball and better fastball command, Burnett retired six of seven before serving up a solo home run to Victor Martinez in the fourth. He then left the tying run stranded on second base with back-to-back strikeouts, got a critical 4-6-3 double play to counter a leadoff single in the fifth, and retired the first two batters in the sixth before being taken out when Don Kelly reached on a single.

The last time Burnett gave up just one run in a start? June 13.

"We had a feeling," A-Rod insisted. "I heard a lot of guys talking before the game that they expected a big game from A.J. He delivered."

Will this one start put Burnett in the rotation for the rest of this postseason, or change fans' perception of the $82.5 million pitcher who's signed through 2013? Maybe not.

But none of that matters right now. All that does is the Yankees are suddenly more likely to make it to the AL Championship Series than the Tigers. They have Game 5 in their place, which will feature an Ivan Nova-Doug Fister matchup the Yankees already won once.

For that, you can thank the man you apparently love to hate.

"It feels good," Burnett said about proving all the doubters wrong. "But I'm the type of person that feels like I could've done more. I feel like I should've done more, but it was good enough to get a win for our team. That means more than anything."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.