Girardi sticks with plan for Game 4

Remember these words — “staying on rotation" — because they very well could be the Yankees’ 2010 epitaph.

Joe Girardi’s promise to stand by A.J. Burnett will be put to a critical test Tuesday when the Yankees look for someone — anyone — to reverse their downward spiral in the ALCS.

Indeed, the Bombers’ crisis felt so real after an 8-0 loss to the Rangers in Game 3 that it appeared Girardi would finally summon CC Sabathia for an emergency start in Game 4.

The manager waited until almost midnight, however, to announce the bond with Burnett was unbreakable.

Is A.J. still starting Tuesday, the manager was asked.


Was that at all a thought process?

No, he said, adding stiffly, “I don’t think we’re in trouble.”

Girardi might be in the minority, given how his Yankees had just been obliterated by Cliff Lee. Down 2-1 in the series, the Bombers must extend the series to a sixth game, and according to Newsday, Lee has told Rangers officials he’s willing to pitch on three days’ rest in Game 6, if necessary.

That’s no small knockout punch the Rangers are waiting to deliver, considering Lee already made a huge dent in the Yankees’ confidence. He threw what was arguably the best game against them in postseason history, a clone of Sandy Koufax’s 15-strikeout masterpiece in Game 1 of the 1963 World Series.

But even Koufax had a moment of humanity, allowing Tom Tresh an eighth-inning home run. On Monday night, the Yankees never laid a finger on Lee: He surrendered two hits, struck out 13 and took a no-hitter into the fifth.

The sold-out crowd filled the Stadium with every expectation of a pitcher’s duel, and that’s exactly what it got. Lee and Andy Pettitte, in near-lockstep all night. As brilliant as Pettitte was, however, he wasn’t perfect, allowing Josh Hamilton a two-run home run in the first inning that left an eerie warning for Yankees fans who’d been hoping for some of Pettitte’s late ’90s magic.

Not your night, is what Hamilton’s blast seemed to say. To his credit, Pettitte never panicked after the early 2-0 deficit, but no one could’ve out-maneuvered Lee on this night.

He feathered the corners with all four of his pitches, changed speeds so effectively that the gap between his 77-mph curveball and 93-mph fastball seemed to overwhelm the synapses of the Yankees. They simply couldn’t react.

Jorge Posada broke up the no-hitter in the fifth on a weak flare into no-man’s land in shallow right, and Brett Gardner singled sharply up the middle in the sixth. No one else really got close.

“He was just very, very consistent,” is how Alex Rodriguez described it. Neither better than usual or any worse — just a steady stream of unpleasant strikes that denied the Yankees the sweet spot of the bat.

So what was the point, really, of trying to contain the beast? That’s the mistake Girardi is going to have to live with if the Yankees can’t make it out of the ALCS. They’ll watch the Rangers in Game 1 of the World Series next week and think of the tactical miscues, starting with the belief that it was OK to go one-on-one with Lee instead of working around him.

If Lee couldn’t be beaten, he needed to be marginalized in this series. One appearance, where he could’ve chewed up Phil Hughes, and that would’ve been it.

The fact that Pettitte allowed only two runs in seven innings only served to catalyze Girardi’s mistake. Pettitte proved he was capable of neutralizing the Rangers, and would’ve likely prevailed over Colby Lewis in Game 2. That would’ve given the Yankees the 2-0 series lead they needed.

Instead, they turned that long, desperate gaze at Burnett, who had a chance to stand before the Yankees family late Monday night and calm everyone’s fears. This was a half-hour or so after the Rangers had cleaned out the Yankees’ bullpen in a six-run ninth inning.

The rally was so unbearable for Yankees fans, most didn’t bother to watch: The ballpark was practically abandoned by the time the Bombers went to bat for the last time. The scent of resignation was heavy in the clubhouse. Not panic, not fear, just an unmistakable lifelessness from a team that had been out-played for the third straight game in a best-of-seven.

Burnett was one of the few players still at his locker when reporters were allowed in. They gathered, hoping to hear the right-hander share his thoughts. If this isn’t the biggest start in Burnett’s career, it’s close enough to warrant a peek at what’s beneath his psychological flesh.

Courage or fear? Anticipation or dread?

This was Burnett’s opening. Only, he snapped the window shut, gathering his belongings, slinging his coat over his shoulder and walking out of the room without a word.

So the mystery deepens. Who’s showing up Tuesday night to pull the Yankees back from the abyss?

Burnett? Girardi?