Game 3 of the Tigers-Yankees Division Series was breathlessly billed as a tantalizing duel between two of the game's most dominant arms: Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia.
The two heralded hurlers yielded four earned runs apiece. But while Sabathia never found his groove in 5 1/3 erratic innings, Verlander provided stretches of awe-inspiring dominance, striking out 11 Yankees over eight innings. And after getting washed out of Game 1 by a torrential Bronx downpour, Verlander delivered Detroit the all-important swing game in this best-of-five series, pitching Detroit to a 5-4 win in Game 3 with a gutsy effort against an imposing Bronx Bombers lineup.
"He was terrific," Jim Leyland said, despite Verlander allowing more than three runs for just the seventh time all season. "There's just no breathers in [the Yankee lineup]. Most of them are all a threat to hit the ball out of the ballpark. That's a tough chore."
A chore Verlander couldn't have handled without a little help from his friends, both new and old. First, the new: Delmon Young. While the Tigers' July trade for Doug Fister has received ample ink -- and rightfully so -- Detroit's mid-August waiver acquisition of Young from Minnesota hasn't drawn the praise it deserves. Down the stretch, Delmon provided the team with a clutch middle-of-the-order bat -- just like his older brother Dmitri did during his days in the Old English "D." And on Monday night, Young made his biggest contribution to the franchise yet. The Yankees tied the game at 4-4 with a pair of two-out runs in the top of the seventh inning, deflating the towel-waving Tigers faithful and seemingly swinging the momentum to the visiting dugout. But Young immediately struck back in the bottom of the inning with his second opposite-field blast of the series, giving Detroit a lead it wouldn't relinquish.
"Somebody different every night, and tonight it was Delmon," Verlander said of the eventual game-winning homer. "That's why this team is so dangerous. Because top to bottom, anybody can hurt you."
This is true. Anybody, including two of Verlander's oldest Tigers cohorts: Ramon Santiago and Brandon Inge. Santiago wasn't even in the original Game 1 lineup against Sabathia on Friday night. But Leyland had a change of heart on Monday, putting the light-hitting Santiago in the two hole due to prior success against Sabathia.
Santiago rewarded Leyland with a single, a double and two RBIs.
And Inge's two-hit, two-run night against Sabathia was even more surprising, considering the 11-year vet actually spent a month of the summer in Triple-A Toledo trying to get his swing together.
"They sparked our offense," Alex Avila said of Santiago and Inge, two of just four players left from Detroit's 2006 World Series team (along with Verlander and Magglio Ordonez).
And of course, Jose Valverde finished the game with his 50th save in his 50th opportunity of the season. Though he did make things a little interesting, per usual, putting runners on first and second before striking out Derek Jeter with 94 mph heat.
But just as it has all season, the story always comes back to the Tigers ace. The 2011 Cy Young winner-to-be and AL MVP candidate led the majors in wins (24-5), strikeouts (250), innings pitched (251) and WHIP (0.92) during the regular season. And although he gave up two runs in the first inning and a pair in the seventh, for the other six he was essentially unhittable. He befuddled Yankees hitters with his one-of-a-kind arsenal, most notably a blazing fastball and a snap-dragon curve that dove into the strike zone at the very last moment, to the wonderment of helpless hitters. At one point, Verlander racked up seven strikeouts in a nine-batter span, thrilling the Comerica Park-record 43,581 in attendance.
"The crowd was amazing. You tend to feed off that a bit," Verlander said. "Can't say enough about this city and the way they've embraced us all year long."
Mark Teixeira, who fanned twice in his four hitless at-bats against the Tigers ace, waxed poetic about Verlander's unique longevity.
"He was pretty incredible," Teixeira said. "I give us a lot credit for scoring four runs off him. He's throwing 100 miles an hour in the eighth inning. That's impressive. I tip my cap to him. I don't know if there's anyone else in baseball, especially a starter that can do that for eight innings. He bent, but didn't break."
On the other hand, the Yankees starter didn't fare so well. Despite giving up a first-inning homer to Delmon Young on Friday, Sabathia actually appeared far more locked in before the rainout -- striking out four Tigers in his two innings of work. On Monday night, the 19-game winner had difficulty finding the plate, recording a season-high six walks and throwing 106 pitches in just over five innings of work. Yankees skipper Joe Girardi pointed to the man behind the plate, Gerry Davis.
"I actually thought [CC] made a lot of good pitches tonight and I thought the zone was a small zone tonight," Girardi said. "No disrespect to anyone, but that's what I thought. That's what I saw."
Sabathia took the high road.
"I've never been one to look at who's calling balls and strikes," Sabathia said. "It's just up to me to get guys out."
Now, the Yanks find themselves one loss from elimination. And after the huge buildup for Sabathia-Verlander, Game 4's pitching matchup couldn't demand less pregame pomp and circumstance: A.J. Burnett (11-11, 5.15 ERA) vs. Rick Porcello (14-9, 4.75 ERA). Burnett made six starts for the Yankees over the last two postseasons, splitting them right down the middle in typical Burnett fashion: half splendid, half awful. Girardi actually originally planned to roll with a three-man rotation in the ALDS, sending Burnett to the bullpen, but mother nature changed that with Friday night's washout.
"I'm going to take it and run with it," Burnett said before Game 3. "Had it not rained and I had been in the bullpen waiting for a call, waiting to help out any way I can. The only thing that's changed is I have a chance tomorrow to help out."
Meanwhile, Porcello gets his first taste of postseason play Tuesday night. It won't be a completely foreign experience to the 22-year-old, though, as he pitched in Detroit's 163rd game at Minnesota as a rookie in 2009. Although the Tigers lost the game 6-5, Porcello pitched well over 5 2/3 innings, allowing just one earned run and striking out eight.
"Having a little bit of experience in a playoff-type atmosphere should help going into it," Porcello said. "This time around, it's on our home turf for me, so I'll have that going for me."