Tigers survive rain, dramatic ninth inning

October, 2, 2011
10/02/11
7:10
PM ET
Well, this much we've learned in the Tigers-Yankees series: Baseball in the rain stinks.

A baseball game shouldn't be decided by a catcher slipping on the plastic on-deck circle chasing a potential game-ending foul pop, and a pitcher trying to keep his hand dry trying to grip the ball, and a batter trying to wipe away the drips of water falling from the brim of his batting helmet with the game on the line.

But baseball seems determined to play through the rain, no matter the size of the puddles on the field or the strength of the downpour.

With the rain falling in buckets, Robinson Cano was facing Jose Valverde with two runners on and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the Tigers up 5-3. It was an enormously tense situation, set in motion when Valverde -- he of the zero blown saves this season -- entered with a 5-1 lead and gave up a leadoff homer to Nick Swisher and a triple to Jorge Posada, who later scored on a sac fly. With a runner on and two outs, Valverde appeared to get out of it when Curtis Granderson hit a pop fly near the Detroit dugout.

Sure enough, Alex Avila slipped on the wet on-deck circle and the ball plunked harmlessly into the mud. You can point out that third baseman Brandon Inge should have hustled over to make the play, but that's another argument. When Granderson then walked, it appeared this would turn into one of those classic Yankees postseason moments, like Jeffrey Maier helping Derek Jeter, or the missed third strike on Tino Martinez in the 1998 World Series followed by Tino's grand slam, or Jeremy Giambi not sliding.

So there stood Cano, trying to keep the rain out of his eyes. There stood Valverde, keeping his hand under his armpit and then in his crotch to keep it dry. He kept firing fastballs, perhaps worried about getting a good grip on his splitter. Cano fouled off two with two strikes before finally grounding out to second.

For the Tigers, disaster was avoided.

For the Yankees, the worry sets in.

After all, Justin Verlander goes in Game 3 for Detroit. And A.J. Burnett goes in Game 4 for the Yankees, and no matter how well he pitched against the Red Sox in his final start of the season, the words "A.J. Burnett" and "playoff start" have Yankee fans already taking Tylenol and praying to their Don Mattingly shrines.

That final inning ended up obscuring the fine effort from Detroit starter Max Scherzer. Give him and Avila credit: They took what plate umpire Eric Cooper was giving them.

With Cooper liberally giving both the outside corner to left-handed batters and the low strike at the knees, Scherzer and Avila kept pounding outside and pounding down. He wasn't about to make a mistake inside, not with that short porch in right field, not considering he allowed four home runs at Yankee Stadium back in his first start of the season.

The Yankees understandably grew frustrated with Cooper's strike zone, to the point that Swisher, leading off the fifth with the Yankees still hitless at the time, complained about a called third strike that was actually right down the middle of the plate at the knees. Avila had set up outside for a changeup, but Scherzer dropped down a bit and fired across his body. The angle of the pitch caught Swisher by surprise. Scherzer will do that: change his arm angles a bit, and even though his fastball will sit at 93 to 95 with movement, he mixes in a lot of changeups and sliders. As always, the Yankees were patient and drew four walks, but could manage only two hits off Scherzer, the first off those Cano's blooper in front of Delmon Young in the sixth.

Scherzer finally got in trouble in the seventh when Swisher walked on a 3-2 pitch and Posada singled to center on the first offering. With the Tigers leading 4-0, Jim Leyland made the right move in going to top setup guy Joaquin Benoit, instead of his third- or fourth-best reliever, as some managers would do in the seventh. Benoit had a 1.33 ERA and allowed opposing hitters a .116 average in the second half. But Leyland understood the urgency of the situation, and with a sudden rainstorm hitting, Benoit got Russell Martin on a fly to right, pinch-hitter Eric Chavez swinging and Jeter looking.

So now the Yankees may be in a bit of trouble. One more bad sign: Alex Rodriguez is hitless through two games and drew some boos from the home crowd after popping out to second in the eighth. He's trying to play with a bad knee, and Joe Girardi certainly doesn't want to replicate the uproar of 2006 when Joe Torre moved Rodriguez down to eighth in the lineup in Game 4 of the Division Series against the Tigers, but A-Rod just doesn't look like a cleanup hitter right now (he's hit .171 since returning from the DL on Aug. 21).

We're definitely a long way from panic mode for the pinstripes. CC Sabathia, after all, is every bit as capable of a big game as Verlander. And then there's Valverde ... I'm not sure even Tigers fans have complete confidence in him.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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