The team that was left for dead when it lost three straight to the Royals with a chance to win the American League Central overwhelmed the Yankees to win its AL Division Series instead. Jeremy Bonderman pitched 8 1/3 innings and Craig Monroe's two-run homer propelled the Tigers to an 8-3 victory on Saturday, putting the finishing touch on their first postseason series victory since the 1984 World Series.
The best pitching staff in the Majors during the regular season outperformed the big leagues' best offense -- and what some touted as one of the best lineups of all-time. The combination of Game 2 starter Justin Verlander, Game 3 starter Kenny Rogers and Bonderman held New York scoreless for 20 consecutive innings to roll off three straight victories over three days in two different stadiums.
It was the most dominant stretch of postseason pitching against the Yankees in terms of shutout innings since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling shut down New York in the 2001 World Series.
"I just was so proud of the aggressiveness of our pitching, particularly the last couple of nights, and even Verlander," manager Jim Leyland said. "We attacked them, and fortunately in this situation, we won the battle."
Each of the Tigers' three straight wins came with a different style. Verlander battled his control at times, but he used his stuff to keep runners stranded save for a Johnny Damon three-run homer. Between Verlander's start and Joel Zumaya's relief, it was cited by many as the turning point of the series.
"Nobody expected us to go in there and win at Yankee Stadium," Zumaya said. "We showed them we were going to go nine hard innings."
Rogers allowed runners on base with one out or fewer in each of his first five innings, but he kept the Yankees off balance enough with his offspeed stuff that the runners couldn't advance.
Bonderman gave arguably the best pure pitching performance of the three, and certainly the most aggressive. By attacking Yankees hitters with his mid-90s fastball and letting the late-afternoon shadows shroud his nasty slider against right-handed and lefty hitters alike, Bonderman took a perfect game into the sixth inning and didn't allow a run until back-to-back singles from Derek Jeter and Bobby Abreu leading off the seventh set up Jeter to score when Hideki Matsui beat out a would-be double-play throw by a hair.
"When you go against a team like that," Ivan Rodriguez said, "there's no weakness in that lineup. But my guys did a good job. Jeremy, Kenny, Justin and Zumaya all did their part."
Teams with best record in Majors (or share of) losing in Division Series since 2000
|2006 Yankees||97||Lost to Tigers in 4|
|2003 Braves||101||Lost to Cubs in 5|
|2002 A's||103||Lost to Twins in 5|
|2000 Giants||97||Lost to Mets in 4|
It was a reminder of what put the Tigers into the playoffs in the first place.
"They have the best lineup I've ever faced," said Rogers. "They have not gotten it done the last few days, but we were the best pitching staff in baseball this year. People forget that. [I'm] not bragging, but we earned the right to be here against them or anybody else, and we've done it with pitching and timely hitting. It was easy for them to overlook us, because the Yankees seemed unbeatable."
Though the Yankees had bigger-name arms with respectable performances, they couldn't keep up. Mike Mussina lost a 3-1 lead on Thursday in a 4-3 loss to even the series. Randy Johnson and his bad back were little match for Detroit's run manufacturing. Game 4 starter Jaret Wright was out in the third, having given up three earned runs in 2 2/3 innings. Any chance of a Yankees comeback seemingly vanished when the Tigers racked up four straight hits and three more runs off Cory Lidle, New York's other option to start Game 4 who became a reliever instead.
It made a distant memory of last weekend's series sweep to the Royals. Yet in hindsight, the Tigers can now look at the collapse and arguably see a turning point in themselves. For one, it forced them to refocus, especially a pitching staff that gave up 35 runs in a five-game losing streak to end the regular season and an overall team that was pressing to clinch something.
"I think that was one of the lessons that we needed to learn right there," said third baseman Brandon Inge. "I think we tried too hard to try to nail it down. You can't really do that. You just need to go out there and play and just let things happen. It makes it all worthwhile."
Beyond the mindset, though, the series setup may have been a blessing.
"Maybe in some ways the good Lord was looking after us," Leyland said, "because I think it was probably a little bit of a bonus for us to have to only beat the Yankees three times instead of four."
By beating them now, they've put the surprise back into their surprising season, even if they believed all along that they belonged. They were portrayed as the freshmen scrimmaging the varsity, Leyland said a few days ago, but the freshmen proved pretty good.
"When you perform under this -- really, the eyes of the world -- you show you can do it," club president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "That also gives you another level of confidence. We want to win eight more games at the end. I know that they know that they can go out there. They beat the Yankees. They can beat anybody at this point."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.