Yanks come close but can’t ‘close’ it out

One of the characteristics of the Yankees over the past two decades has been their ability to get to another team’s closer while other teams rarely get to their closer. While Mariano Rivera has set the major league record for saves and pitched as superlatively in postseason play, teammates have regularly roughed up his counterparts on the other side.

Jose Valverde was almost the latest victim Sunday night in Game 2 of the American League Division Series, a 5-3 Detroit victory that evened the best-of-five series at one game apiece.

The hard-throwing righthander was 49-for-49 in save opportunities during the regular season, but the Yankees had him on the ropes in the ninth inning. There was even an indication that the ghosts who used to roam the old Yankee Stadium have indeed made the trek to the north side of 161st Street in the Bronx.

The game looked like a lost cause for the Yankees when the Tigers pushed across a run in the top of the ninth on a two-out single by Don Kelly, a defensive substitute for right fielder Magglio Ordonez. That bolstered Detroit’s lead to 5-1, and out of the pen came Valverde, who pitched to a 2.24 ERA with 69 strikeouts in 72 1/3 innings in the regular season.

Nick Swisher woke up the crowd with a leadoff home run. Jorge Posada followed with a drive to left-center and plodded around a field muddy with late-inning rain showers for a triple. How unusual was that? Posada has only 10 triples in 6,092 career at-bats and had none in his previous 407 at-bats in postseason play.

Russell Martin worked a walk, and the joint was really jumping. Andruw Jones hit the ball hard to right, but Kelly made a fine running catch. Jones had to settle for a sacrifice fly, which made the score 5-3.

Valverde struck out Derek Jeter on a 95-mph fastball. Then with Curtis Granderson batting, one of those ghosts that Jeter always used to talk about coming out in the late innings of games at the Stadium may have been at work. The game appeared over when Granderson hit a foul ball near the Tigers’ third base dugout. Catcher Alex Avila slipped on the wet dirt as the rain was falling, and the ball fell free. No play, official scorer Howie Karpin rightfully ruled.

But it continued the at-bat for Granderson, who walked. That brought up Robinson Cano, who had driven in six runs in Game 1. There was drama aplenty with each pitch as Cano fouled off three straight mid-90s fastballs before hitting a hard grounder to second base for the final out.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland admitted after the game that he actually considered walking Cano intentionally, which would have loaded the bases for Alex Rodriguez, who is having a brutal series (0-for-8, 1 walk).

“You know what; I thought about it,” Leyland told reporters. “But the other guy [Rodriguez] has been known for the dramatics, and I figured it’s wet, it’s slippery, one gets away, one run is in, something like that would happen, a ground ball, a ball slips I just couldn’t do it. Hit a ball in the infield, you get him over there and somebody throws it away, the game is tied. But it did cross my mind.”

That shows how much respect there is in the game now for Cano. The last time these teams met in the ALDS five years ago, Leyland called the Yankees, “Murderers Row plus Cano,” which he meant as a compliment to the second baseman who was off a .342 regular season in his second year in the big leagues but was batting seventh or eighth in the order. Now Cano is a 3-hole hitter who has a three-time Manager of the Year thinking about walking him to face a guy who has hit 629 career home runs.

Miguel Cabrera played the Cano role for the Tigers with a home run, two singles and three RBI, which was plenty of support for starter Max Scherzer, who held the Yankees to two hits in six-plus innings. The Yankees made a last stand against the Tigers’ closer, but not even a shove from one of the ghosts, be it the Babe, Lou, Joe D. or the Mick could create a different ending.

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