DETROIT - This was the night Justin Verlander had been waiting for ever since he struggled through October as a worn-out rookie five years ago.
Now a tireless ace for a new group of blue-collar Tigers, Verlander struck out 11 in eight tough innings to lead Detroit past the New York Yankees 5-4 Monday night in Game 3 of their American League playoff.
And once Jose Valverde struck out Derek Jeter with two on to end another drama-filled ninth, the Tigers were one win from the AL championship series.
"This is the first time I've been in this situation and felt good. In 2006 as a rookie, I was pretty fatigued," Verlander said. "I've worked my tail off since then, and I feel like every year I've been ready for this. And this is why I work so hard. There's no point in holding anything back now."
Delmon Young hit a tiebreaking homer in the seventh off Rafael Soriano and the Tigers took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series, pushing the Yankees to the brink of elimination.
Their hopes ride Tuesday night on A.J. Burnett, the US$82.5-million pitcher who was so unreliable this season that he wasn't supposed to get a start in this series. A rainstorm changed all that when Game 1 was suspended Friday, forcing both teams to alter their pitching plans.
"Trust me, they're not going to go away," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "We've put ourselves in a decent position, but we've still got more to accomplish. So this is a long way from being over."
Rick Porcello gets the ball in Game 4 for the Tigers.
Detroit reached the World Series in 2006, but Verlander posted a 5.82 ERA that post-season, a performance that has gnawed at him ever since. He started the opener against the Yankees on Friday night, but that game was halted after only 1 1/2 innings, forcing Verlander and New York ace CC Sabathia to wait until Monday for their first extended work of the series.
While Sabathia didn't make it through the sixth, Verlander was still hitting 100 miles per hour on the stadium radar gun in the eighth.
"There's so much adrenalin in a situation like this," he said. "I lost my rhythm for three batters and they scored (two) runs to tie the game. But this team has a never-say-die attitude. We've done it all year. Come from behind. We've held leads. We've done everything we've had to do, and tonight's another example of that."
Valverde took over in the ninth — and another tense finish followed. The all-star closer, who was perfect in 49 save chances this season, walked two and got a warning-track flyout before striking out Jeter to end it.
"It's not very comfortable with a guy that's got over 3,000 or so hits up there in that situation," Leyland said.
Trailing by four in the ninth on Sunday, the Yankees scored twice against Valverde before he got Robinson Cano to ground out with two on to close out a 5-3 victory in Game 2.
"Every now and again he does that, but we've got the utmost faith in him," Verlander said. "He's done it all year long. What a job he did, especially after throwing 30-some pitches last night. You know, that's not easy."
After two games in New York that took three rainy days to finish, Comerica Park was dry on Monday, with the exception of the fountains beyond centre field. The Yankees managed two quick runs off Verlander in the first, but the 24-game winner settled down. He appeared to be labouring at times, allowing four runs, six hits and three walks, but he stayed in for 120 pitches and Detroit produced just enough offence.
Brett Gardner tied it for the Yankees with a two-run double in the seventh, but Young answered with a line drive that barely cleared the wall in right field to give the Tigers a 5-4 lead.
Young, obtained from Minnesota in a quiet trade Aug. 15, also homered off Sabathia in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium before the downpour Friday night.
"Amazing," Verlander said. "What an acquisition he's been. He's been such a great teammate, such a great acquisition for us and this lineup. It just extends our lineup even farther. What a stud. What an at-bat."
Valverde, who threw 34 pitches in a non-save situation Sunday, was back for the ninth a day later. He had playfully declared the series was "over" after Game 2, and the Yankees nearly made him eat his words, but Jeter struck out swinging with runners at first and second.
"I feel good about Jeter whenever he's up there in those situations because he's been there so many times," New York manager Joe Girardi said.
Sabathia squandered an early 2-0 lead. He allowed four runs and seven hits with six walks in 5 1-3 innings.
"I actually thought he made a lot of good pitches tonight and I thought the zone was a small zone," Girardi said. "No disrespect to anyone, but that's what I thought. That's what I saw."
Verlander, who led the AL in wins, ERA and strikeouts, was a bit erratic in his lone inning of work Friday, walking two and allowing a run before the rain ended his outing. The first inning went even worse for him Monday. Jeter hit Verlander's first pitch right back up the middle for a single, then Curtis Granderson's drive sailed over the head of Austin Jackson in left-centre for an RBI triple.
Alex Rodriguez made it 2-0 with an RBI groundout.
Sabathia had even more problems, walking four of the first six hitters he faced, but Detroit grounded into double plays in each of the first two innings and didn't score.
Brandon Inge doubled to left-centre in the third for Detroit's first hit, and Jackson walked. Ramon Santiago failed to get a bunt down but made up for it by lining an RBI single to left.
After Young's single, Miguel Cabrera — who homered and drove in three runs in Game 2 — came to the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out.
With the crowd on its feet waving white towels, Cabrera grounded into Detroit's third double play in three innings — but this one tied the game at 2.
Verlander found his groove during the middle innings. He struck out Nick Swisher for the third out of the fourth, then struck out the side on 10 pitches in the fifth, leaving the New York hitters looking helpless as his sweeping breaking ball dropped over the plate.
"He settled down nicely. His curveball was real effective, his changeup was real effective. Obviously when you throw 100 (m.p.h.), that's going to be effective most of the times, too," Girardi said.
Leyland altered his lineup slightly from Game 1 against Sabathia, putting Santiago at second base instead of Ryan Raburn and batting him second. Santiago has hit .292 against Sabathia (7 for 24) in the regular season, while Raburn is 4 for 23 against the New York ace.
Sure enough, in the bottom of the fifth, with one out and a man on second, Santiago hit an RBI double to left-centre to make it 3-2.
Detroit added another run off Sabathia in the sixth. Jhonny Peralta followed Don Kelly's bunt single with a double to left that appeared to bounce off a pole in the fence, caroming strangely to the left while the runner came around to score.
After walking Jorge Posada with two outs in the seventh, Verlander stood behind the mound briefly to gather himself. It didn't work — he then hit Canadian catcher Russell Martin in the ribs with one of his triple-digit fastballs, putting runners on first and second.
Gardner lined a 3-2 pitch from Verlander to left-centre. By the time Jackson raced over to retrieve the ball and unleashed a mediocre throw back to the infield, both runners were on their way home for a 4-all tie.
But that was it for the Yankees, and now their season rests in the hands of Burnett.
"I feel good about what A.J. is going to do for us tomorrow," Girardi said.
NOTES: Burnett went 11-11 with a 5.15 ERA in the regular season. ... Verlander and Sabathia were the first AL pitchers to start Games 1 and 3 of a post-season series since Oakland's Dave Stewart in the earthquake-interrupted 1989 World Series against San Francisco. ... Actor Jeff Daniels, who is a big fan of Michigan sports, stood on the Detroit dugout about a half-hour before the game and played "Tiger Fan Blues 2011" for the crowd.