MLB Feature: Tigers sweep Yankees behind solid rotation

THE BROOMS were out at Comerica Park on Thursday as the 2012 Detroit Tigers swept the New York Yankees out of town in the American League Championship Series. Detroit faces the winner of the St. Louis-San Francisco NLCS, to be determined tonight or over the next few days.

Yankee players were humbled, their bats silenced by Detroit pitching that game up six runs in four games. The Yanks, by the way, scored the second most runs in MLB during the regular season. Yankee fans, on the other hand, were humiliated and left scratching their heads—three times in the last six years their team has been eliminated from the postseason by the Tigers.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi was left to wonder aloud, during his post-game interview, what they had to do to improve next season, including himself, to ensure this doesn’t happen again. It was almost as if he couldn’t bring himself to credit Detroit for playing a helluva series, for wanting it more.

Max Scherzer pitched no-hit baseball into the sixth inning—the only Yankee to reach base up until then was by way of error. Phil Coke was stellar, again, in relief, as Jose Valverde, after his performance in game two in New York in which he blew the save and was saved from further embarrassment by the Detroit bats coming alive to win the game in the twelfth inning, once again rode the splinters.

Delmon Young, who was booed much of the season for his inconsistency, got hot at the right time and won series MVP in becoming the first man in MLB to get the game winning hit in all four games.

Even though triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder were relatively quiet (but not silent), other players stepped it up: Jhonny Peralta hit two big flies yesterday. Austin Jackson did his part with both bat and glove, as did Quinton Berry and Omar Infante. Offense is usually difficult to come by in the postseason, but Detroit got it done yesterday in a big way: three big flies, 16 hits and eight runs.

A series for the ages when you look at the numbers: the New York Yankees, as a team, were held to just above a .150 batting average. They looked to be boys playing against men. Quite simply, the Yanks stank. Swisher sat against Verlander. Cano didn’t get his first hit in the series until game three. Axle-Rod was pinch hit for and rode the bench, signing a baseball from the dugout for a young woman and getting a phone number in return.

Colleen and I attended Tuesday night’s game, the first at Comerica Park for the ALCS. It was damp and chilly, and there was a threat of rain; but the atmosphere was electric. Justin Verlander was pitching for the good guys, and when JV pitches, good things often result.

You’ve heard the expression “Must see TV,” in reference to your favorite prime time drama? In Detroit, during the baseball season, we do it a little differently. When Verlander takes the mound, Comerica Park sells out to SRO crowds. Fewer lawns are mowed than on any other day of the week, and people stop at their favorite watering hole on their way home from work to watch JV work his magic with a baseball. It’s called “Must see JV.”

When Verlander pitches, there’s always the possibility of seeing something great. He’s already pitched two no-hitters in his young career, and the last few years he’s been at the top of the league in innings pitched and most strikeouts. Last year he won League MVP and the Cy Young.

But he has been human in the postseason, simply because he is his own worst enemy. During the regular season he pitches to hitters’ weaknesses, watches them to see what they’re looking for; but in the postseason he tends to amp it up, wants to get hitters out with what he wants to throw—usually that 100 mph fastball he features—instead of setting up hitters and letting his defense play behind him.

Which Verlander would show up for game 3? Colleen and I were about to find out.

After Detroiter Jeff Daniels sang the National Anthem—accompanying himself on acoustic guitar—a not so memorable rendition but a vast improvement over Jose Feliciano’s interpretation at game 5 of the 1968 World Series at venerable Tiger Stadium, Verlander took the mound to a thundering ovation. We wanted to let him know he wasn’t alone out there, that we were behind him 100%.

Opposing hitters know the importance of hitting a pitcher early, before he settles in, and it’s no different with Verlander. He sometimes gets hit around in the first inning; but Tuesday night he was awesome, taking but ten pitches to retire the side, and Colleen and I hoped it was a precursor for a complete game performance.

Verlander was perfect through three innings and allowed only one run on three hits over 8 1/3 innings. The Yankees were forced to go to their bullpen in the fourth when Phil Hughes exited with a stiff back, but not before he gave up a solo homerun to Delmon Young. Detroit would add another in the fifth frame.

Colleen and I had a grand time, sipping beers, eating a hotdog and keeping each other warm as the temperature dropped to under 50 for a few minutes before heating up again to 51 for the last couple innings, even as a drizzle began to fall, and stopped only to start up again.

The crowd was boisterous but not mean—no Detroit fan is ever mean when the Tigers are ahead, despite what Tom Monahan once said about Tigers fans. A brief political disagreement broke out between two fans—one a row in front of us and the other across the aisle—but I put a stop to it before it got too heated, calling out, “Leave your politics at home, this is a ballgame!” and received a short cheer. Baseball and politics don’t mix.

Late in the game, after a Yankee hitter fouled off a Verlander heater, I called down to the Yankees’ dugout—yeah, like Joe Girardi could hear me—“Hey, Joe, maybe you want to call for an instant replay review on that one!” That earned me a fist bump from the young man seated in front of us. He, too, recalled Girardi’s comments in the aftermath of game two concerning the missed call at second base, when Infante, clearly out, was called safe. In his post-game comments, Girardi suggested MLB implement instant replay. But a couple years ago, when the Twins were burned in the ALDS against the Yankees by a bogus call, Girardi was quoted, “I like the way it is now.” The grass is browner on the other side, eh, Joe?

Eduardo Nunez led off the Yankee ninth with a solo homerun—the first run given up by a Detroit starting pitcher in 37 2/3 innings. Leyland came out to ask Verlander if he could get one more out. Verlander told him, “Yeah.” And I imagined Leyland’s reply: “Well then why did you make me come all the way out here to ask?”

Leyland later said, “Normally, I guess you don’t take Secretariat out in the final furlong, but that was pretty much it for him.”

Box score on Verlander: 132 pitches, one run, two hits. Yeah, must see JV.

One out later, Detroit manger, Jim Leyland, brought in Phil Coke to get the final two outs and the Tigers were within one game of clinching their eleventh appearance in the Fall Classic.

A high-five, a hug and a kiss from Colleen, a second fist bump from the guy in front of us, and Colleen and I were on our way home, thinking sweep and wondering who Detroit would meet in the World Series.

Early prediction: Detroit-St. Louis, with Detroit winning in five games.

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