DETROIT — A sellout crowd of 42,970 at Comerica Park twirled white towels as Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander seemed to pick up steam with each passing inning and each blazing fastball. It was the New York Yankees, though, who appeared to be on the verge of waving a white flag in the American League Championship Series.
Verlander pitched his third postseason gem, putting a struggling Yankees team one game away from elimination in the ALCS. Verlander allowed just three hits and gave up no walks in 81 / 3 dazzling innings, and Phil Coke got the final two outs as the Tigers topped the Yankees, 2-1, to take a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series
The Tigers will go for the sweep Wednesday, sending Max Scherzer to the mound against New York ace CC Sabathia in Game 4.
“We’re playing pretty good right now,” Detroit Manager Jim Leyland said, “but we still believe there’s a long way to go.”
Verlander, who was still hitting 99 mph on the radar gun in the game’s final inning, picked up his third win of the postseason. Including his shutout in Game 5 of the American League Division Series, Verlander has given up just two runs on 10 hits while striking out 25 in three playoff outings covering 241 / 3 innings.
“It seems like in the last two years every time Justin’s game comes out, he’s at a new level, a new plateau,” said Jack Morris, the former Tigers great who pitched on Detroit’s 1984 World Series team.
Far away from any plateaus, the Yankees meanwhile are exploring new postseason depths. They’ve played 30 innings in these playoffs but have crossed the plate in just two of them. Until Eduardo Nunez’s ninth-inning home run Tuesday, the Yankees hadn’t scored a run in 20 straight innings.
The Tigers haven’t been lighting up the scoreboard either, but they’ve done just enough to put away the Yankees each night. The two teams were knotted at zero through three innings Tuesday. That’s when Detroit’s designated hitter, Delmon Young, stepped to the plate and sent a low line drive over the left field wall for a solo home run, his second of the ALCS.
“I knew I hit it hard enough,” he said, “but we weren’t at Yankee Stadium so I had to wait an extra 30 feet for it to land.”
Just one batter later, the Yankees pulled starter Phil Hughes because of a stiff back. Hughes took the loss, giving up one run on three hits and three walks in three innings, and the Yankees then had to churn through five relievers.
Facing right-hander David Phelps, Quintin Berry led off the fifth inning for the Tigers with a grounder to third, but Eric Chavez, who started in place of a slumping Alex Rodriguez, misplayed the ball and Berry reached on the error. Berry then stole second and had no problem scoring on Miguel Cabrera’s double over Curtis Granderson’s head in center field.
Verlander didn’t allow a single base-runner until Ichiro Suzuki slapped a single to left in the fourth inning. The Yankees had only only two hits entering the ninth inning.
“Our guys really tried to put some good at-bats on him, and they did,” Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said. “But he’s really, really good, and we know that.”
The Yankees finally got on the scoreboard with Nunez’s leadoff homer in the ninth. Leyland strolled to the mound and asked Verlander to get one more one out. The hurler did and then Leyland called for the closer.
“Normally I guess you don’t take Secretariat out in the final furlong,” the manager said later, “but that was pretty much it for him.”
Coke came in, allowing two Yankee hits and a bit of tension. With runners on first and second, pinch hitter Raul Ibanez worked Coke to a full count before swinging on strike three.
New York’s offense has struggled in each ALCS game. In the regular season, the Yankees compiled 245 home runs, 31 more than the next team and 82 more than the Tigers, who boasted the league’s home run champ in Cabrera. Their 804 runs scored were more than 30 other teams. But in the postseason, simply reaching first base has proven to be a challenge, particularly against Detroit’s starters.
In Game 1, Tigers’ pitcher Doug Fister allowed six hits and no runs, and in Game 2, Anibal Sanchez was even better, tossing seven scoreless innings and giving up just three hits. And those were supposed to be the easier parts of Detroit’s postseason rotation. Verlander and Scherzer were Nos. 1 and 2 in the majors in strikeouts this year.
“Pitching is contagious, just like hitting is” said Verlander, who finished the regular season with a 17-8, a 2.64 ERA and 239 strikeouts. “And, you know, we are all competitive guys. . . . You see somebody go out there and have a good game, and you want to one-up that guy. He is your friend, I know, but it still gives you the urge to go out there and do better.
“That’s a great thing when you can get your entire rotation doing that. And I think we’re starting to click at the right time.”