Derek Jeter banged the first pitch of the night back up the box for a lead off single. Justin Verlander threw a high fastball, several notches below his best velocity. Jeter was ready. Curtis Granderson saw a few more of the third-tier heaters, and then lashed at a high one out over the plate. It’s rare you see a hitter manage to hit a ball with such authority on a pitch so fast and so elevated in the zone, but Granderson beamed it over Austin Jackson’s head just left of center for a run-scoring triple.
Verlander decided that was enough of the mid-90s junk and loaded the gun for maximum cheese. The look on his face said that Granderson was not scoring. And the look was almost right. He struck out Robinson Cano on fastballs of 98 and 100 mph. Cano was blown away. Arod looked for the same treatment, but saw filthy curves instead. And just when he got used to the bend, Verlander flashed 100 again. Alex fouled the first one back. He snapped the bat on the second, but the dribbler to short scored Granderson and the Yankees led 2-0. Verlander struck out Teixeira to end the first and must have been thinking, “Damn, if I threw my best fastball to Curtis, could he have gotten on top of it like he did?”
CC Sabathia staked to two runs should give Yankee fans a warm and fuzzy feeling. But Sabathia was off from the first batter. The umpire gave nothing on the left-handed batter’s box side of home plate, and Sabathia set up camp there all game. When he was out there, he walked guys. When he came over the plate, the Tigers did a little damage. Sabathia walked the lead off man, Austin Jackson, on a pitch that looked to be strike three. He got a double play on the next batter. He walked the next two hitters, but got out of the inning with the 2-0 lead intact.
Deep breath for everybody. It was just a bumpy start. He’ll settle down. He’ll figure out the umpire. He’ll be good. Before an out was recorded in the third, we had our answer. No, he wouldn’t be good. Unable to throw precise strikes on the ump’s corners, and unable to coax the Tigers to chase his off speed stuff down below the strike zone, Sabathia combined a mix of high and out side balls and hittable fastballs at the belt and over the plate. The Tigers took their walks when given and took their rips when appropriate.
Brandon Inge, the first batter of the bottom of the third, doubled into the left center gap. CC went up 1-2 on Austin Jackson as he tried to bunt Inge to third, but then CC lost the zone completely and Jackson walked again. CC went up 0-2 on Ramon Santiago, as he too tried to bunt, but could not put him away. Santiago ripped a single into left and Inge scored the Tigers first run. Sabathia got lucky when Miguel Cabrera got out in front of a relatively benign breaking ball and rolled into the third double play in the first three innings. That tied the game, but allowed the Yankees to escape the big inning.
If not for the twin killings, Sabathia might have already been out of the game.
The Yankees chipped at Verlander, but never bothered him. Posada singled in the second but was erased on Martin’s double play. Brett Gardner accidentally had a great bunt to lead off the third, but was erased on Jeter’s double play. Gardner and Jeter tried to work a hit and run, but Jeter was forced to swing at a ball and fouled it off. It was not a bad call. On a 2-1 pitch, Girardi expected a fastball for a strike and didn’t get one. The straight steal might have put Gardner in scoring position and had Jeter sitting on a 3-1 count. But it worked the other way, left the double play in order and Jeter couldn’t resist. Jeter singled to lead off the sixth, but Verlander ate the heart of the order for dinner. Strike out, pop out to left, strike out.
I left out the fifth, in which Verlander struck out the side on 10 pitches. No contact. Just one ball away from an immaculate inning. The score was 2 to 2, but the Tigers must have felt that they were in firm control as long as the two starting pitchers remained in the game. Fans on both sides were just wondering in which inning Sabathia would crack. The big guy had little to nothing and little was late for a bus.
But give the big guy credit. He never did crack. He got hit. He let up runs, but he averted catastrophe each time. And when his gas tank was officially empty, Rafeal Soriano averted it for him. In the fifth, Inge looped a single and scored on a deep double by Ramon Santiago. But that was it for the fifth. Defensive replacement Don Kelly dragged a bunt to lead off the sixth. Jhonny Peralta took his turn with a deep double and made the score 4-2. After a sac bunt, Rafeal Soriano relieved CC and coaxed a pop out and a whiff. The game had no business being close, but there it was.
Let me rephrase, it was close in the sense that two runs is usually considered “close.” But the way Verlander was dealing, two runs did not feel close. He started the seventh with two quick outs and just as he was about to settle Jorge Posada for his tenth strikeout of the game, Cy Young became Cy Twombly. He walked Posada on four straight balls. He plunked Martin. With a full count on Brett Gardner, he got beat. Gardner saw six straight heaters and finally had the timing. He served Verlander’s 96th pitch, a 100 MPH fastball, into left center for a game-tying double.
The game had a fresh anything-can-happen vibe for a few moments, but then Delmon Young dinked one over the right field wall. The Tigers should play in Yankee Stadium. They are the masters of the oppo dink homer in this series. It’s hard to complain about that, considering how many dink homers the Yankees have hit over the years. Also, Miguel Cabrera hit the next one 419 feet and had nada to show for it. Still, it sucks to have the series turn on the dink homer.
The Yankees still had Verlander to contend with in the eighth. Granderson took aim at the right field wall and came up a few feet short. Robbie got jobbed on a high strike for the second out. A-Rod worked a 3-0 count and let loose when Verlander pumped a get-me-over fastball down the middle. The get-me-over fastball with two outs in the eighth? 100 mph. A-Rod took his best swing of the series, but only could foul it off. He did stick around to work a walk, but the human pop out machine follows him in the lineup, so all hope was lost for the inning as soon as Alex dropped the bat.
David Robertson hammered through the eighth without any trouble, so the Yankees were facing a tired closer who couldn’t throw strikes needing one run to tie the game. It just so happened that the closer was the same guy who guaranteed that Detroit was winning games three and four. Jose Valverde threw a lot of leaky fastballs (drifting towards the right handed batters), most of them for balls, and looked ripe for the plucking.
The Yankees didn’t pluck. Nick Swisher saw stars in his eyes and popped up a honey of an 2-0 pitch, right down the pipe. Jorge Posada walked to get the tying run on a base. Russell Martin made a bid for the shorter wall in right and came up a foot short of where Granderson came up short. Brett Gardner walked on four pitches setting the stage for Derek Jeter. Valverde woke up. He reined in his leaking fastball just enough to nail the inside corner a few times. Jeter got a break on a close 1-2 splitter (the first I saw of the inning) but swung through a well placed fastball up and in to end the game.
Tigers 5, Yankees 4. The Tigers lead the best of five ALDS 2-1 and can wrap it up tomorrow night.
Justin Verlander was excellent, throwing eight innings and striking out 11. But the Yankees got to him for four runs and acquitted themselves pretty well against the best pitcher in the league. CC Sabathia was bad and coughed up an early lead. He managed to keep the game close, but his performance was disappointing, and a massive letdown for all the people expecting to see the two best pitchers in the league show their stuff. Losing this game was not destined, but the way CC pitched, it was certainly deserved.
Where do the Yankees go from here? AJ Burnett. That’s as bad as it sounds. But facing elimination, the Yankees have no choice but win. So we have no choice but to root them on. Our best did not measure up to their best, didn’t come close, and that’s a kick in the gut with a steel tipped boot. But the series is not coming down to those guys. It’s coming down to everyone else. And the Yankees have a great everyone else. Get Mariano in a game that matters and show this Valverde clown something about pitching and about class.
C’mon Yankees, winning two in a row is simple as rip, boom, bash, hammer, snap. Get to it.