NEW YORK – Jose Valverde powered the final pitch past Alex Rodriguez, crouched and then exhaled.
As did the Detroit Tigers, and their fans everywhere.
Don Kelly and Delmon Young hit back-to-back homers in the first inning, then Doug Fister and three relievers spent a tense night trying to protect the lead. They held off the high-powered Yankees – barely – and beat New York 3-2 Thursday in the deciding Game 5 of their American League playoff series.
“It was a gutsy win, especially with all the opportunities they had,” Kelly said.
The victory sent Detroit to the A.L. championship series for the first time since 2006, the year they also eliminated the Yankees in the first round. Game 1 is Saturday night at Texas.
In a thrilling game in which the outcome seemed to teeter on every pitch by the Tigers, Fister escaped a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the fourth. Grimacing and breathing hard, Joaquin Benoit walked Mark Teixeira to force home the Yankees’ second run before striking out Nick Swisher with the bases loaded to end the seventh.
There were more gasps from a new Yankee Stadium record crowd of 50,960 – and yes, both benches, too – in the eighth when Derek Jeter hit an inning-ending flyout to Kelly just in front of the right-field wall with a man on.
“We had everyone standing up in the dugout,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “A lot of times it’s a matter of a foot here or a foot there, and it’s the difference.”
Valverde finished with the only 1-2-3 inning for Detroit after the first, getting his second save of the series and remaining perfect in 51 chances this year.
“The Yankees are so good that I would be lying if I said it didn’t give me a little extra satisfaction to be able to do it here in the fifth game,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “This will be a game I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
While the Yankees were eliminated in the postseason with a one-run loss at home for the first time since the 1926 World Series against St. Louis, Detroit won an all-or-nothing postseason game for the first time since beating the Cardinals in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series.
Detroit celebrated in the visiting clubhouse by pouring alcohol-free Fre Brut sparkling wine – Miguel Cabrera was arrested in February and charged with DUI.
With the Tigers vying for their first World Series title since 1984, ace Justin Verlander will start the ALCS opener against the Rangers’ C.J. Wilson.
“Anytime you win here has to be extra special,” general manager Dave Dombrowski said. “We have a good club. I feel comfortable going in to play with anybody.”
New York used six relievers, pulling Ivan Nova after the second inning. CC Sabathia made the first relief appearance of his professional career after 421 starts, and allowed an RBI single to former Cleveland teammate Victor Martinez that made it 3-0 in the fifth.
“It was weird,” Sabathia said.
Still, the Yankees had their chances, putting on runners every inning from the second through the eighth. But New York went 2 for 9 with runners in scoring position and 0 for 4 with the bases loaded, and the Yankees stranded 10 runners.
Robinson Cano, who had nine RBIs in the series, started the comeback attempt with a fifth-inning homer into the right-field upper deck.
When Jorge Posada, playing perhaps his final game for the Yankees, had singled with two on in the fourth, Rodriguez was held at third. Fister then retired Russell Martin and Brett Gardner on infield popups.
“For me, Rob Thomson is the best third-base coach in the game,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez was 0 for 4 with three strikeouts and hit .118 in the series (2 for 18) and Teixeira batted .167 (3 for 18).
“It’s devastating. This is going to hurt for a long time,” Rodriguez said.