DETROIT -- Playoff baseball is rarely predictable, but Tuesday night's outcome was pretty close, as a struggling lineup undergoing experimental revisions opposed baseball's most dominant pitcher in a postseason game in his home park.
Tigers ace Justin Verlander had allowed one run in his first two October starts, and the Yankees had scored in only one of their previous 21 innings, prompting manager Joe Girardi's alchemic chore of reinventing his batting order.
Verlander threw 8 1/3 innings of one-run, three-hit ball, running the Detroit rotation's streak of earned-run-free innings to 37 before allowing a solo homer in the ninth. The Tigers then held off a two-on, two-out mini-Yankees rally in order to win ALCS Game 3 by a 2-1 score and take a commanding 3-0 series lead.
"Guys that are as good as he is seem to rise to the occasion," Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "I think he's the best pitcher in the world."
There's increasingly little doubt of that. The reigning AL Cy Young winner and MVP, Verlander dominated the majors' second-highest-scoring offense despite not having his best performance. Admittedly, some of that was New York's doing -- a re-structured batting order did little to turnaround its sinking fortunes -- but most of that work belonged to the complete pitcher on the mound.
Verlander hit 99 and averaged 96, yet still he outwitted the Yankees more than overpowered them, striking out only three and, by his own admission, losing his rhythm in the middle innings. "Strikeouts are fine," Jones said, "but they're not necessary."
You'll often hear how starting pitchers like to pace themselves, making the first revolution of the lineup with little more than fastballs and only exerting maximum velocity in jams. That's the ideal, and it's nice and all, but few pitchers can actually execute it -- especially against a lineup like the Yankees' that is, whether slumping or not, as power-laden as they come.
"I just think that tonight he made them mishit the ball pretty good," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "This is a tremendous hitting team with big-time power, and it's a difficult lineup to manage against. So I thought he was absolutely terrific.
"But I think more on the mental side I have been more impressed with the way he is handling these bigger situations now. He has matured a lot, and I am impressed with the way he is handling it."
It's been written many times before, but greatness bears repeating. This isn't just a philosophy of pitching but an execution. Consider Verlander's ability to build his speed and expand his repertoire, throwing only two breaking balls in the first four innings while his velocity never dropped a single tick from one inning to the next. He saved his offspeed pitches for later rotations of the lineup, even throwing more non-fastballs (nine) than heaters in the ninth.
Verlander did what the Tigers hoped and even expected him to do, though that doesn't make his performance any less impressive.
"Really my approach was to get ahead and be aggressive and not let anybody score," Verlander said. "That approach kind of went out the window in the fourth. I kind of fell out of rhythm a little bit and started falling behind guys, and I think that's why -- not that it matters -- but I didn't strike out many more guys. . . . But [I] was able to make pitches when I needed to. Got some pop-ups and groundouts and was able to make pitches when I had to."
Despite winning the series' first two games in the Bronx, there was pressure on the Tigers in Game 3. Had the Yankees beaten Verlander -- something they did twice in three tries during the regular season -- they'd have reasserted themselves with Yankees ace CC Sabathia looming in Game 4, with a very real chance to even the series and restore homefield advantage (for whatever that's been worth this month).
Instead, Verlander continued his first dominant postseason after a shaky track record in his previous two appearances, throwing a 5.82 ERA in four starts back in 2006 and a 5.31 ERA in four outings last year, two of which were notably rain-interrupted.
This October, however, he was oh-so-close to three straight scoreless starts, allowing only solo homers to Oakland's Coco Crisp in the first inning of his first start and New York's Eduardo Nunez in the ninth inning of his third start. Instead, Verlander has had to "settle" for two runs allowed in 25 innings, which is a mere 0.72 ERA, while striking out 11 in each of his first two starts.
Verlander was two batters shy of back-to-back complete games, but he had reached 132 pitches and, even with a potential eight-day layoff before World Series Game 1, it was time to summon a reliever to finish the Yankees, as Phil Coke got the final two outs for the save.
"Normally you don't take Secretariat out in the final furlong," said Leyland, taking the ace as workhorse metaphor an extra step.
The Yankees, who have now scored five runs in three games, are on the brink of elimination and, despite their huge payroll of proven stars, it's not clear who'll even play tomorrow, as Girardi tries to extract even a little more offense in support of Sabathia.
Sitting on this night were both Alex Rodriguez and Nick Swisher, who are making about $40 million this year.
Leading off was Brett Gardner, who hadn't started a game or since April 17 and had only four big league plate appearances in the interim.
Batting fourth was Robinson Cano, who entered in an 0-for-26 skid that reached 0-for-29 and thus extended his record for futility in a single postseason before he singled in the ninth.
In the ninth, even with lefty-killer Coke on the mound, Girardi opted not to pinch-hit for lefties Cano or Raul Ibañez; despite a game-winning home run off a lefthander in the ALDS, Ibañez has struggled mightily against southpaws this year. Though Cano did smack a base hit, Ibañez struck out to end the game.
Given their postseason-long offensive woes, the Yankees are fortunate to still be playing, for which Ibañez's clutch hitting played a central role. But now that has faded and Verlander has ensured that this series' outcome looks pretty obvious too.