NEW YORK — The Detroit Tigers have been miscast as a one-man team, a collection of role players riding one pitcher’s right arm all the way to October. They are so much more than that, and on the day their season hung in the balance, facing the pinstriped might of the New York Yankees, they consigned Justin Verlander to the dugout and proved what they really are: a threat to win the whole bloody thing.
These Tigers by no means dominated the Yankees or proved themselves the better team in this American League Division Series. They just survived. Thursday night, on the strength of performances from players all over their roster, the Tigers dispatched the Yankees with a 3-2 victory in the winner-take-all Game 5. The Yankees’ season ended before 50,960, the largest crowd to ever watch a game at the new Yankee Stadium.
“I feel very comfortable about going to play anybody with that club,” said Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski, his suit removed and his white T-shirt drenched in champagne. “I don’t know if we’re going to beat them. But I don’t think we have to take a back seat to anybody.”
Everyone at the stadium was moved, at some point, the edge of their seat during a taut, tense and thrilling game. The Yankees left the bases loaded down a run in the seventh inning, and in the eighth Derek Jeter smoked a two-out flyball to the warning track that Jeffrey Maier may have snagged if he were sitting in the same seat he occupied 15 years ago. In the ninth, high-wire closer Jose Valverde faced the menacing heart of the Yankees’ order — Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez — to save his 51st game in 51 tries.
The Yankees outscored the Tigers, 28-17, over the five-game series, and even in the waning moments of the series the Tigers seemed ready to hand it over to the Yankees. But the Tigers prepared to fly to Arlington, Tex., late Thursday to face the Texas Rangers in the American League Championship Series, which will begin Saturday. The Yankees packed their lockers and wondered what could have gone differently.
“You have to remember this feeling and take it into next year so it doesn’t happen again,” Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said.
The Yankees used six relief pitchers — including ace CC Sabathia for 1 1/3 innings, two days after he threw 106 pitches — after rookie starter Ivan Nova exited the game after two innings with tightness in his right forearm. Girardi shuttled pitchers in and out of the game like as if managing under Little League rules dictating everyone gets a chance to play.
The strategy may have looked something like panic, but it mostly worked. After Nova allowed two homers in his first seven pitches, the Tigers managed only one more run, an RBI single in the fifth inning by Victor Martinez off Sabathia that proved to be the game-winner.
Tigers starter Doug Fister allowed only one run — a Cano missile to the upper deck in the fifth — as he danced in and out of jams for five innings. Fister allowed five hits and two walks, and he stranded six base runners. The Yankees loaded the bases in the fourth, but Fister induced popups from Russell Martin and Brett Gardner that kept the Yankees scoreless.
The pregame buzz focused on which Tigers starting pitcher would not be available. Late Thursday afternoon, Verlander, the presumptive AL Cy Young award winner, threw a bullpen session to prepare for his next start. The Tigers had decided he would pitch in relief under no circumstance. Verlander had thrown too many 100-mph fastballs into the eighth inning in Game 3 on Tuesday night to pitch on two-days’ rest, even in a loser-goes-home, winner-moves-on game.
And, besides, the Tigers had Max Scherzer. Their Game 2 starter fired aspirin tablets at the Yankees for 1 1/3 dominant innings, striking out two and leaving only after Jeter reached on an infield single with one out in the seventh. He bridged the gap to set-up man Joaquin Benoit.
“It’s Game 5,” Scherzer said. “There’s nothing more. There’s nothing bigger. Biggest game of my life. It doesn’t matter if I was starting or relieving. I was coming in with my best stuff.”
Benoit entered with Jeter on first base and a large bandage on the left side of his face, protecting an ingrown hair that had become infected and sore. After the Yankees complained it was a distraction, umpires forced Benoit to remove it.
“It’s a situation where you either have to do it or not,” Benoit said.
The Yankees’ last, best threat came in the bottom of the seventh inning, when they loaded the bases trailing by two runs and sent Alex Rodriguez to the plate. Benoit struck out Rodriguez with a filthy, 86-mph change-up, eliciting boos from the crowd and dropping Rodriguez’s series average to .118. Mark Teixeria drew a five-pitch walk to slice the deficit to 3-2, but Benoit used another pitch from his nasty arsenal — a 96-mph fastball — to strike out Nick Swisher and end the rally.
“Every out was tough,” Benoit said. “I didn’t feel nerves. I think it’s more emotions with Game 5.”
The toughest out was his last. With two outs in the eighth and Brett Gardner on first base, Jeter lofted a deep fly ball to right field, where the short porch has turned many a routine flyball into home runs. “Don’t go, please, don’t go,” Benoit thought. Watching from the clubhouse, “my gut kind of went out,” Scherzer said.
But right fielder Don Kelly settled under the ball and caught it with his heels to the wall.
“I didn’t think it was out,” Dombrowski said. “But I’ve been wrong here before.”
The Tigers had proved their pitching staff goes much deeper than Verlander, and earlier they had revealed their offense can produce from a variety of places. Kelly started 62 games for the Tigers this season, but Manager Jim Leyland felt a hunch Thursday morning that Kelly’s left-handed bat, the short porch in right field and a right-handed Yankees starter made for an advantageous combination. Leyland sat the veteran Brandon Inge in favor of Kelly, a 31-year-old with fewer than 600 career at-bats.
“He deserves to be in there tonight,” Leyland said before the game. “That’s why he’s playing. You don’t get sentimental at this time of year.”
Kelly walked to the plate in the first inning, the second batter of the game, as the fans in the right field bleachers were still chanting the name of each Yankee player on the field. He turned the place from a party into a morgue with one swing. Kelly roped Nova’s sixth pitch of the night, a hanging curveball, over the right field fence.
The atmosphere turned funereal one pitch later. Nova fired a first-pitch slider to Delmon Young, who hammered it high and deep to left field. When the ball landed in the seats, the Tigers had taken a stunning and rapid 2-0 lead. Nova had allowed four homers in 80 innings dating back to July. Now, in the biggest game of his burgeoning career, he had yielded two on consecutive pitches.
The homers mostly held up until the final out, when Valderde whiffed Rodriguez with a 94-mph fastball and began dancing on the mound. His celebration lasted only a second or two before the rest of the Tigers streamed from the dugout and joined him in a dogpile. They hugged and shook hands, a bunch that can win without Verlander — and now, because of that, can start him Game 1 of the ALCS.
Afterward, soaked in champagne, Verlander walked out of the Tigers’ clubhouse with a cigar in his left hand and a half-empty bottle in his right. He stood in the corridor and took in the moment, the best thing about the Detroit Tigers, but not the only thing.
“We’re obviously more,” Benoit said. “They put together a great team, and we’re like a family here.”