NEW YORK — Jose Valverde and the Detroit Tigers nearly let this one slip away.
Instead, they’re on solid footing with ace Justin Verlander set to start back home at Comerica Park.
The Tigers and their excitable closer somehow held off the Yankees’ furious rain-soaked rally in the ninth inning and Detroit beat New York 5-3 on Sunday, evening their best-of-five A.L. playoff series at one game apiece.
Down 5-1, the Yankees scored twice in the ninth and had a chance to win it after Detroit catcher Alex Avila lost his balance on the slick on-deck circle while chasing Curtis Granderson’s two-out foul popup.
“It’s tough to win games here, especially in the playoffs,” Avila said. “You get what you can and get ready for the next game and that’s all you can think about.”
After his pop landed untouched, Granderson walked. With two on, Robinson Cano came to the plate.
Cano, who hit a grand slam and had six RBIs as the Yankees won the opener, wiped away raindrops from his helmet while Valverde tried to get a good grip.
With the crowd roaring, Cano hit a routine groundball to end it.
“All of a sudden, against anybody — but particularly against a team like them with the short porch in right field — it was not a good feeling,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “But it worked out OK.”
Tigers starter Max Scherzer pitched no-hit ball into the sixth before Cano blooped an opposite-field single to left.
Miguel Cabrera’s two-run homer in the first off Freddy Garcia gave Scherzer an early edge, and the Tigers took a 4-0 lead into the eighth.
Granderson hit a solo homer off Tigers reliever Joaquin Benoit in the eighth. Pretty soon, the rain — and all the drama — filled Yankee Stadium.
“Today, we proved that we can compete. (Monday) is going to be a different story,” Benoit said. “We go home, we’re going to play in our home ballpark, which is a little bit more fair.”
Game 3 is Monday at Detroit. In a rematch, of sorts, CC Sabathia is scheduled to start against Verlander, a 24-game winner. The two All-Stars faced each other in the series opener Friday night, but the game was suspended after only 11/2 innings because of rain.
The Yankees lost three of four this year at Detroit and are 22-25 at Comerica Park since it opened in 2000. It’s one of only two A.L. stadiums where New York has a losing record.
“The mentality here is everything is high, we feel good, and we just lost a tough one here today,” said Nick Swisher, who homered on Valverde’s first pitch.
Playing on the scheduled travel day, the Tigers now fly home with a chance to take command of the series, just as they did in 2006, when they lost the opener in New York before sweeping three straight.
Planning on playing two more days in a row in Detroit, Yankees manager Joe Girardi did not use his top late-game relievers, Rafael Soriano and Dave Robertson, and Detroit added a run in the ninth on Don Kelly’s RBI single off Luis Ayala for a 5-1 lead.
“Being down three runs, and you know what Valverde has done all year long, we decided to go to Ayala,” Girardi said.
Valverde entered in the ninth with a four-run lead. He led the majors in going 49 of 49 in save chances this year, and the Tigers were a perfect 83-0 this season when taking an edge into the ninth.
But this was not a save situation for Valverde, and he was far from perfect.
“It’s a little hard. That’s what happens sometimes,” Valverde said.
Swisher began the comeback with a drive over the right-field wall. Jorge Posada followed with the first career postseason triple and Russell Martin walked. With the crowd rooting for a rally, Andruw Jones hit a sacrifice fly that made it 5-2.
“We always have faith,” Posada said.
Derek Jeter struck out as the rain that has hounded this playoff series from the start returned in buckets. Granderson then lifted his foul pop near the Detroit dugout and Avila tracked it.
But the All-Star catcher slipped on the mat sporting the Yankees’ logo, lost his balance and had no play.
“I was looking to see where the railing was, and I hit the on-deck circle and my foot went right underneath me,” Avila said. “I couldn’t recover after that.”
Given another chance, Granderson drew a walk that sent him to first base as the tying run.
Cano and Valverde both did their best to stay dry — the Yankees’ star asked for a towel to wipe off his helmet, the Tigers’ relief ace tried to tuck away the ball in his glove.
Valverde won this matchup, retiring Cano on an easy grounder to second base.
Cabrera took advantage of the short right field porch in the Bronx to give Detroit a 2-0 lead. The A.L.’s top hitter this year added an RBI single in a two-run second that began with a throwing error by Jeter.
Making his postseason debut, the 27-year-old Scherzer excelled. He gave up two hits, struck out five and walked four. He was lifted for Benoit with a 4-0 lead after allowing a walk and a single to Jorge Posada to open the seventh as ominous clouds settled over the ballpark.
“I had confidence I was going to pitch well today,” Scherzer said. “I was just very relaxed and was able to slow everything down and it allowed me to pitch my game.”
Benoit had not given up a run in his last 22 outings and he retired Martin, then struck out pinch-hitter Eric Chavez as it began to pour, sending fans running for cover.
Jeter came up with runners on first and second for the second time in the game and struck out looking with rain drops dotting his batting helmet.
Umpires never called for the tarp and blue skies returned about 10 minutes later in the top of the eighth in a game that began with players wearing sunglasses after two days of wet weather.
Benoit gave up Granderson’s to start the eighth but got Alex Rodriguez, 0 for 8 in the series, and Mark Teixeira to pop out, eliciting boos from many of the 50,596 in attendance.
“I don’t have any plans of changing my lineup,” said Girardi, when asked about Rodriguez’s struggles. “I’m not going to make too much of two games.”