DETROIT - OCTOBER 03: Justin Verlander #35 of the Detroit Tigers pitches in the first inning during the game against the New York Yankess at Comerica Park on October 3, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Justin Verlander wasn't the best he's ever been, but still he worked eight strong innings, and he got just enough support for the Tigers to pull ahead of the Yankees 2-1 in their playoff best-of-five.
Game 3 of the Tigers/Yankees ALDS was billed as the "rematch" of the two aces, with CC Sabathia set to face Justin Verlander. Sometimes, these matchups turn into pitchers' duels, like they're supposed to. Most of the time, they do not. Monday night, there was no pitchers' duel, but there was still some good pitching, and a very good game - a game that went to Detroit, 5-4, to give the Tigers a 2-to-1 series edge.
Verlander out-pitched Sabathia by a healthy margin, but it was the Yankees who struck first, and they struck before many people might've gotten to their seats. Derek Jeter sent the game's first pitch into center field, and Curtis Granderson sent the game's fifth pitch into deep left-center field, recording a triple to give New York a 1-0 lead. That lead was doubled a few minutes later when Granderson sprinted home on a grounder.
The good news for Detroit was that Sabathia came out rusty, fighting control problems and a small strike zone. Sabathia walked three batters in the first, another in the second, and another in the third, already exceeding his previous season high for free passes.
But the Tigers had to wait until the third inning to get on the board, because they were bailing Sabathia out with double plays. Ramon Santiago hit into one in the first and Jhonny Peralta hit into one in the second to stifle potential rallies. In the third, Santiago lined an RBI single to drive in Detroit's first run, and they went on to tie the game, but the tying run scored on - wouldn't you know it? - Miguel Cabrera's bases-loaded double play. One had to wonder at that point whether the Tigers had let Sabathia off too easy.
It was somewhere around there that Verlander found his groove and shifted to unhittability. So even though the Tigers were having a rough go against Sabathia, they could have confidence that New York wouldn't retake the lead. After Brett Gardner led off the third with a bunt single, Verlander allowed all of one hit over the following 17 plate appearances, with seven strikeouts.
The Tigers broke the 2-2 tie in the bottom of the fifth. Santiago was inserted into the lineup over Ryan Raburn specifically because of his personal history against Sabathia, and whether or not that was the right thing to do in theory, in reality it worked out nicely. Santiago ripped a low fastball for a double to score Brandon Inge and give Detroit a 3-2 lead.
The next inning, Jhonny Peralta provided some insurance when he plated Don Kelly with a double off the left field wall. A sac bunt later, Sabathia was removed from the game after only 5⅓ innings, having walked six and struck out three; it was his shortest outing of the year. Even considering the tight strike zone, Sabathia simply looked off, and there will be questions concerning how rested he was after Friday night's false start.
With the Tigers ahead 4-2 and Justin Verlander cruising, it looked like the game was well in hand. When Verlander retired the first two batters he faced in the seventh and got ahead of the third 0-and-2, the outcome looked like a virtual certainty. But then:
Hit by pitch
Verlander went and got himself in trouble, and Brett Gardner stunned everybody with a two-out, two-run double hit off a hundred-miles-an-hour fastball. Out of nothing, the Yankees staged a game-tying rally against one of the best starting pitchers in baseball.
Comerica fell quiet. It wasn't quiet for long. Verlander ended the top of the seventh, and two batters into the bottom half, Delmon Young restored Detroit's lead. Young got a first-pitch fastball from Rafael Soriano and rode it out to right for his second opposite-field homer of the series, and his second opposite-field homer of the season. The August acquisition didn't look like an impact addition in August, but his timing's been perfect in October.
Back in front, Verlander set the Yankees down in the eighth, getting Mark Teixeira to pop out with his 120th and final pitch - a 99-m.p.h. fastball. Verlander allowed the four runs, but he finished with three walks, 11 strikeouts, and just another win.
He earned that win after Jose Valverde slammed the door in the ninth. Valverde had a taxing outing on Sunday and made things spicy again Monday with a pair of walks, but with the tying run in scoring position, Valverde struck out Derek Jeter to push the Yankees to the brink. Valverde's celebration was unusually subdued.
Behind 2-1 in the series and facing elimination, the Yankees have no choice Tuesday but to hand the ball to A.J. Burnett. The Tigers will counter with Rick Porcello, who's no ace himself, but one figures that Girardi will be willing to move on Burnett at the first sign of trouble, because the Yankees can't afford any of his trademark big innings. This is going to be a hell of a game to watch.