Valverde walks tightrope in tense ninth

Valverde walks tightrope in tense ninth

Valverde walks tightrope in tense ninth
NEW YORK -- Jose Valverde is not short on confidence, on or off the mound. He also isn't short on humor, even if it's hard sometimes to tell the two apart.

As he talked with reporters following his 34-pitch ninth-inning marathon to wrap up the Tigers' 5-3 win over the Yankees on Sunday, he took a question about what stealing a game in the Bronx meant for the American League Division Series -- which heads to Detroit for Games 3 and 4 -- and ran with it.

"It's over," he said with a crack of a smile. "Tomorrow's the second [win], and when's the last game?"

That would potentially be Tuesday night for Game 4.

"Tuesday? Tuesday's the celebration," he answered.

For a split second, he sounded like somebody making a guarantee. But then, sometimes it's hard to tell funny Valverde from confident Valverde. Sometimes, they're the same.

"I'm just kidding, guys," Valverde said with the kind of 255-pound belly laugh he usually gives when he's messing with somebody.

It takes a serious sense of humor, if that makes any sense, to go through a season as a closer with a celebratory dance. More so when that wrestling-style crossing of the arms followed an outing in which what had been a four-run lead was a hit away from vanishing. It also takes an abundance of confidence.

But then, it took an abundance of confidence to get the final out that got him there.

He had Robinson Cano at the plate less than 24 hours after the Yankees second baseman's grand slam to open the American League Division Series, and about five hours after Tigers manager Jim Leyland called Cano one of the five best hitters in baseball. He had the tying run on base after two hits, two walks and a hard-hit sacrifice fly. He had a sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium roaring, rain pouring, and a tight back that has been bothering him off and on for weeks. He had his catcher gathering himself after slipping on a rain-slickened on-deck circle and missing a foul pop that would have ended the game.

On his side, he had a sinker. And he had a splitter he could set up.

Fair enough.

"I know Cano's coming," Valverde said. "Cano's one of the best second basemen. He has a lot of power. I said, 'You want to do a home run? You can do it, but I'll throw the best pitch I have right now, my sinker.' And I got a ground ball."

Technically, the grounder came on a splitter. But it took the sinker to get Cano to the point where he had to swing. And it took some bravado to stick with it.

"You know that Valverde doesn't care," said Brandon Inge, who was also chasing that foul ball that Alex Avila slipped pursuing. "He doesn't care. One way or the other, he's going to throw the same pitch he throws all the time, and he's going to go after the guy. So he doesn't care. That's why he's as good as he is."

Valverde didn't get the save, but only because he had a four-run lead when he entered. It still might have been his toughest third out of the season. The Tigers got to leave town with a split at Yankee Stadium, and a chance for Justin Verlander to put the Tigers in control of the series Monday night.

And Valverde got to breathe just a sly sigh of relief.

"I say, 'Thank you, God, for that,'" he said.

That did not sound like a ton of confidence. But it did sound funny.

So did the rest of his remarks.

"You know, it was a little hard, I think," he said with that belly laugh again. "Yeah. That's what happens sometimes. Nothing you can do.

"You do the most you can. I throw my pitches, my split-finger, my sinker and my fastball."

It's that looseness, fittingly, that allows him to keep his focus when everything around him is seemingly going against him. He has to be pretty loose to embrace a vegetable for a nickname. (Papa Grande means "Big Potato" -- not "Big Daddy.")

It's that same confidence that allowed him to keep throwing sinkers to Cano as he kept fouling them solidly into the third-base stands.

Valverde threw four sinkers, all around the plate. Cano took the first and fouled back the next three, including one that made Valverde hesitate just a little bit.

"In that moment, I throw the best pitch I have," Valverde said. "I throw my sinker. I throw one pitch right in the middle, and he missed it. When he missed it, I say, 'Ooh, it's almost going.'

"And after that, I go again doing what I have to do, and I'm doing my job."

Valverde had 49 save opportunities in the regular season, and converted all of them, from striking out the side in order to getting an out at home on a throw from center fielder Austin Jackson.

Sunday was a little different, Avila said, because of the Yankees' approach. Nick Swisher, one of the more patient hitters in the league, jumped on Valverde's first pitch of the night for a home run.

"They jumped on him early," Avila said, "and a lot of times when teams are facing Jose, they tend to try to take pitches and make him work a little bit. He comes out first pitch and hits a home run. That just kind of set the tone for them coming out in that inning."

The battery tried to adjust, Avila said, but it backfired. Jorge Posada tripled on a full count, and Russell Martin drew a walk to bring the potential tying run to the plate.

Pinch-hitter Andrew Jones sliced a fly ball toward the right-field line, but Don Kelly ran it down to turn a double into a sacrifice fly. Valverde blew a 95-mph inside fastball past Derek Jeter to strike him out, but twice barely missed the outside corner on Curtis Granderson for a walk that put the tying run on base.

"The umpire missed a couple pitches," Valverde said. "I think I missed a couple, too."

That's the funny Valverde again. Cano brought out the confident one, which brought out the end.

"In that moment, I said, 'I win it,'" Valverde said.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.