October 14, 2012
NEW YORK — Six years. Six long years. Six long, long years.
That's how long Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland have been on the mission that drives them — to bring home a World Series title for Mike Ilitch, the 83-year-old owner who has kept investing in Detroit, his city, and the Tigers, its team since 1901.
They came close in 2006, rolling through the first two rounds of the playoffs, but came unglued in barely playable conditions. Their performance against the Cardinals was as sloppy as the weather, and they haven't been back.
They teased Ilitch and their fans a year ago but Nolan Ryan's Rangers stared them down. They couldn't recover from back-to-back losses in Texas to start the ALCS, one by a 3-2 score and another in 11 innings, and put them through another form of torture on Saturday night, albeit with a different ending. A highly encouraging ending for the Tigers and a troubling one for Derek Jeter fans.
This time Jose Valverde entered the ninth inning with a 4-0 lead in a half-full ballpark and left with the scored tied 4-4 after two-run homers from Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibanez. But that blown save might turn out to have major ramifications on this postseason.
The Tigers would reclaim the lead on a 12th-inning double by Delmon Young, and that wasn't the bad news for the Yankees. Even worse than the eventual 6-4 loss was what happened to Jeter fielding a Jhonny Peralta grounder after Young batted. He extended his glove to reach the ball that went past pitcher David Phelps, then stumbled and collapsed to the dirt.
He had to be helped off the field, leaving his status for the rest of the series in question. The last thing the Yankees needed was another major question.
Before Ichiro's line-drive homer into the right-field seats, the atmosphere at Yankee Stadium had been as flat as a bar graph showing Alex Rodriguez's big hits since Felix Hernandez plunked him on the left hand in July.
There were 47,122 in attendance, but almost half of them seemed to leave after Curt Ramm's version of "God Bless America.'' These Yankees won 95 games, the most in the American League, but all being the top seed got them was the chance to play the one Division Series without an off day before the ALCS.
It's hard to say why anybody would draw it up that way, but Major League Baseball did. And as a result of that and the damage done their psyche by Buck Showalter's stubborn Orioles, they are strut-free at this point in time.
"I'm not crazy about it, but there is not really a lot I can do about it, so we have to live with it,'' Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "The extra wild card was added, and this is a function of that because the TV schedule was set. We all know the importance of growing our game and the TV schedule. We have to deal with it.''
When the Yankees finished off the Orioles, after a five-game war of nerves that one Yankee official said was like "the old days, Gibson versus Koufax,'' there wasn't a lot of pure joy in the clubhouse. Now that the pie-throwing days of Nick Swisher and A.J. Burnett are gone, there rarely is with this team, of course, unless it is celebrating a World Series title.
But this was more than the usual straight face. There was some exhaustion, a lot of relief and an awareness that there won't be a 28th championship without hitting the ball better than Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Rodriguez and several others did against the Orioles.
They were back at it against curveball artist Doug Fister on Saturday night.
Girardi had said before the game that "everyone should press the reset button,'' but until the ninth the Yankees looked exactly like the team that batted .211 and outscored the Orioles 16-10 in a five-game fight. Somehow they left the bases loaded in three innings — the first, second and sixth — and were scoreless until gaining a pulse against Valverde.
The Yankees are hitting like the White Sox did down the stretch, when the Tigers passed them.
The Tigers went 15-7 in that period while Miguel Cabrera put the finishing touches to his Triple Crown performance, finally realizing the potential that seemed so obvious when Ilitch authorized Dombrowski, the general manager, to pounce on the unsigned Prince Fielder in January.
Because of the five-game ALDS and the funky schedule, the Yankees are starting Hiroki Kuroda on three days' rest in Game 2, against Anibal Sanchez on normal rest. If they don't win this game they will go to Detroit in trouble, with the knowledge that Verlander is lined up for Games 3 and 7.
Like the Yankees, just getting to the World Series won't be enough to satisfy the Tigers. Ilitch wants to experience the thrill of winning one. The Red Wings have won four Stanley Cups with him writing the checks, but 20 years in baseball has brought him more heartbreak than hardware.
Maybe this year will be different. It gets a lot easier to get to the World Series if the Yankees are missing their captain.
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