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Performer of the game: Tigers closer Valverde

Performer of the game: Tigers closer Valverde

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Performer of the game: Tigers closer Valverde
NEW YORK -- The man they call Papa Grande predicted that his Detroit Tigers would defeat the dreaded Yankees in their American League Division Series. And just to punctuate it, he came out and retired the side without incident in the bottom of ninth inning to win Game 5, 3-2, at Yankee Stadium on Thursday night.

It was Jose Valverde's third appearance, second save and certainly his easiest outing of what was a taut and tense best-of-five series. Heading into Game 1 of the AL Championship Series against the Rangers on Saturday night at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, he's a neat 51-for-51 this year, including 49 saves during the regular season.

"Everybody picked the Yankees. Nobody thought we could do it," said Valverde in the wild champagne celebration in the visitors' clubhouse afterward. "The moment we won the second game here, I wanted this over. I said we'd win it at home. I didn't want the series to go too long. Nobody wants to the series to go too long. But we came back and showed everybody. We won it here."

Valverde finished Games 2 and 3 with trepidation. Valverde came on with a 5-1 lead in the pouring rain to open the bottom of the ninth in Game 2 at Yankee Stadium. He allowed a homer to Nick Swisher, a triple to Jorge Posada and walked two. When catcher Alex Avila slipped on a slick on-deck circle near the Tigers' dugout and missed a pop foul, it seemed that luck might be leaning toward the Yankees.

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But Robinson Cano grounded out to end the game with the tying runs on base as the Tigers prevailed, 5-3. It was then that Valverde predicted the pending end of the series.

"It's over," he boasted afterward. "Tomorrow's the second [win], and when's the last game?"

Later, he told reporters he was joking, but there was evidently a method to his madness. Valverde is known for his quirkiness, trotting from the bullpen until reaching the skin of the infield, and after a hop and skip, walking the rest of the way to the mound. So a little bit of a needle and a prediction is not out of his ordinary.

"Yeah, he did it, he predicted it. I think he said it in fun and in jest, but also in a serious nature," said Dave Dombrowski, the club's president and general manager. "He backed it up, and I give him credit. He put himself in a position where he was under a lot of pressure in the ninth inning. He rolls with it. He doesn't take himself too seriously. He is great at that. He gets the job done."

In Game 3 on Monday at Comerica Park, Valverde was at his scariest again, coming in behind eight innings of Justin Verlander smoke with the Tigers clinging to a 5-4 lead. Again he walked two batters. This time, with the tying run on second, he whiffed Derek Jeter to end matters. It was just another day at the park for the 2011 Delivery Man of the Year.

Perhaps it was apropos, then, on Thursday night that the series would end in the ninth with a whimper rather than a bang. Valverde, Detroit's fourth pitcher in the game, induced Curtis Granderson to pop meekly to left on a full-count pitch, Cano to break his bat on a little blooper to center on the first pitch and finally struck out Alex Rodriguez swinging.

It took all of 11 pitches and the series was over and out -- perhaps one game longer than Valverde's prediction -- but over just the same this time without the usual trepidation.

"He's given us easy innings at times," said Dombrowski. "I know that it's hard to believe if you've seen him lately. But he's been tremendous for us this year, perfect in save situations. He couldn't have picked a better one, and hopefully he'll get a few more this year."

Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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