The Tigers turned this into a contest by winning Game 2 on Thursday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, thus evening this series at 1-1. The series moves to Detroit for Game 3 on Friday night. And while the general expectation remains that the Yankees will eventually win, this series will not be a walkover, a one-sided romp or a little warm-up exercise. The Tigers did what the visiting team hopes to do in a series of this sort: they split the first two games on the road. They changed the central question of this postseason from how soon will the Yankees win to -- holy cow -- what might happen next?
Game 3 is typically the turning point, or at least the hinge in Division Series that open in this 1-1 fashion. The variables in this case are numerous. And they center in this case on the performance of two left-handed starting pitchers who are a combined 84 years of age.
Randy Johnson goes for the Yankees. He is on his way to the Hall of Fame, but at the moment, he is also suffering from a herniated disc in his lower back. The Yankees were greatly encouraged by a bullpen session that he threw on Wednesday.
Johnson was, of course, the co-MVP of the 2001 World Series when he was beating the Yankees instead of starting for the Yankees. But his track record in first-round postseason starts, even including the glory years of his career, is not particularly intimidating -- 2-7 with a 4.59 ERA in 11 appearances, including nine starts.
But that is smooth sailing compared to the postseason numbers of Detroit's starter, Kenny Rogers. In nine career postseason appearances, including five starts, Rogers is 0-3 with an 8.85 ERA.
On the other side of it, Rogers has been a stalwart performer for the 2006 Tigers. Detroit manager Jim Leyland has suggested that some people chuckled when the Tigers signed Rogers to a two-year deal. But the Tigers believed that Rogers' second-half fades in recent seasons were due to pitching in the Texas heat and that he would hold up much better in Michigan's cooler climes. Based on Rogers' performance in the second half of this season, the Tigers were meteorologically and competitively correct.
Conventional wisdom is at a loss for this one. Johnson and Rogers could both be very good. Or they could both be very bad. Or you could have one pitcher in each category.
But beyond these two, there is the larger question of how the teams will respond to the dramatically changed nature of this series. The Yankees' presence in the postseason is a ritual by now, and they are beyond panic's reach. But even they looked mortal on Thursday in the face of, for instance, Joel Zumaya's fastball.
The Tigers are the larger variable. They were reeling when they arrived in the postseason, losing their last five games of the regular season, losing, on the season's last day, the AL Central lead that they had held since mid-May.
But they were fully back in form in Game 2, getting pitching that varied only from effective to overpowering, along with timely hitting. This was the formula that carried them for the vast majority of the season and they recovered it at the most difficult and crucial time.
Now, they will go home and compete before a Comerica Park crowd that has been waiting for this postseason moment for 19 years. A team regaining its footing against baseball's ultimate postseason opponent, coming home to an audience that is poised for an outburst of pure postseason joy, these circumstances could serve to bring out the very best in the Tigers. And the very best in the Tigers is really pretty impressive.
So as this Series moves to Game 3, there are questions, there are variables, there are numerous possibilities unfolding. So it must be true. This has become a real postseason series.