Tigers shock Yankees in dramatic Game 5
October, 7, 2011
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
I was sure Alex Rodriguez was going to pop one out.
I was pretty sure Mark Teixeira was going to pop one out.
I knew Nick Swisher was going to knock one over the short porch in right field, probably down the line and into the first row.
That's what we expect from the New York Yankees, isn't it?
When the Yankees asked Joaquin Benoit to remove the big bandage that covered a zit or mosquito bite or whatever had infected his cheek like a small alien, you knew it was coming: Benoit would be rattled, he'd be thinking about exposing his sore to a national TV audience more than throwing strikes and the Yankees would win another big October game.
Band-Aid Gate. We all saw it coming.
And it almost did. Curtis Granderson reached out on a 3-2 pitch off the plate and looped a liner into right field to move Derek Jeter to second base. Robinson Cano hit a dribbler to Benoit's right that he stabbed at and somehow missed to load the bases. Bringing up Rodriguez. He just missed a 1-1, 95 mph fastball, fouling it straight back. He laid off a low changeup. Benoit came back with another changeup, a fantastic one that dove inside, an unhittable pitch. A-Rod missed it, swinging over the top. The fans booed as he walked back to the dugout. Sometimes it's not easy being the $275 million cleanup hitter.
But Teixeira walked on five pitches. Tigers 3, Yankees 2.
Nothing beats the tension of postseason baseball, especially in Yankee Stadium, with a visiting team trying to pull off the upset, the fans on their feet, too nervous to cheer or boo, it seemed. Maybe we've seen too many ballparks with fans waving towels. Maybe we just haven't seen enough Game 5s or Game 7s in recent years. But this felt like the most pressure-filled October moment in a long time.
Swisher struck out on a 2-2, 96 mph fastball.
Tigers fans exhaled for the first time in 12 minutes.
Benoit had needed 23 pitches to get two outs. The Tigers still needed six more.
Tension? It was punishment for fans on both sides, 166 games of big wins, big home runs and big comebacks, all down to two innings of October baseball. This is why we watch those games when it's 48 degrees and drizzling in April, why we watch those 3-hour games that move slower than a slug in the sun, meaningless games against the Royals or Twins in June. To get here. To six more outs.
As Jeter stepped in with two outs and Brett Gardner on first base in the eighth, Benoit had thrown 36 pitches. He hadn't thrown 37 pitches in a game all season. You can't make that kind of stuff up. On Benoit's 37th pitch, Gardner took off, Jeter took his classic inside-out swing ... Don Kelly took a step or two back, that right-field wall at Yankee Stadium that seems like it was built for wiffleball looming just a few feet behind him ... it looked like it had a chance ... fans reaching over, trying to pull a Jeffrey Maier ... the ball dropping into Kelly's glove.
So of course it came down to Jose Valverde, the man who said the series wouldn't return to New York. All he had to do was retire Granderson, Cano and Rodriguez. The big pitch was a 3-2 fastball to Granderson that he popped up to left. Cano lined softly to center. A-Rod swung through a 94 mph fastball. Game over, Tigers move on, Yankees go home, A-Rod walks off to more boos, the fans not caring that he was playing with a bad knee or that he wasn't the only Yankee to come up short in this series.
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Three big moments in this game:
1. Home runs from Don Kelly and Delmon Young in the first inning. I criticized Jim Leyland for hitting Kelly second. As we say though: You gotta make the plays, and Don Kelly came through. Kudos.
2. Yanking Ivan Nova after two innings essentially forced Joe Girardi to use CC Sabathia. I didn't like the idea of using CC, and he didn't pitch well. He got four outs but gave up two hits, two walks and the run that proved to be the winning run. Of the 37 pitches he threw, just 19 were for strikes.
3. Yankees third-base coach Rob Thomson held up Rodriguez at third base on Jorge Posada's one-out single in the fourth. Rodriguez had reached the bag right as Austin Jackson picked up the ball. Jackson has a decent arm and threw out eight runners on the season. It probably would have been a bang-bang play, especially with Rodriguez not at 100 percent speed. Tough call for Thomson, but I think he made the right decision, not wanting to potentially ruin a big inning. Russell Martin popped out to first and Gardner fouled out to leave the bases loaded.
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During his postgame news conference, Leyland said it perfectly: "This will be a game I'll remember the rest of my life." He pointed out he's been on both sides of it. Asked about Kelly's home run, he said, "Sometimes things just work out for you." He then praised Kelly, said it couldn't have happened to a better kid and nearly got choked up, knowing that home run will be with Kelly for the rest of his life.
And that's October baseball. Unsung heroes, big strikeouts, big hits, tension, pain, suffering and ... joy.
And memories. Love the memories.
You can follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.