Friday, October 06, 2006

Game 2: Almost Worth the 19 Year Wait

As I mentioned yesterday, I took a half day in order to watch the Tigers game. I said I’d be watching it on my couch, but my wife pointed out that we’d need to eat and it’d be more fun to be among others should the Tigers win, so we trekked up to Buffalo Wild Wings. I can’t imagine too many better uses of a half day’s vacation.

The Yankees’ first inning gave us a pretty good clue as to what kind of game it was going to be. Damon dropped a little flare perfectly between Monroe and Guillen for a single. Jeter popped up a bunt attempt for the first out. Abreu walked. Sheffield struck out on one of Justin’s sick curveballs, and Giambi walked to load the bases with two outs. Guess who that brought up. Verlander must have pumped himself up to face Alex Rodriguez because he worked two fastballs inside and up in the zone and both were clocked at 101 mph. That set A-Rod up perfectly for another nasty bender that he was unable to even make an attempt on. It was fantastic to witness, but you had to wonder at that point if the Yankees had just wasted their best chance, or just missed on one of many.

In the Tigers’ second, you had to be nervous as a Tiger fan when Guillen and Pudge both were out on four combined pitches since Mussina had already carved up the Tiger lineup once this season when he threw a complete game without giving up an earned run. But, just as I was realizing I was drinking my beer too quickly from all the nervous energy, Monroe smacked a ground rule double down the line on a 3-1 count. Marcus Thames knocked him in almost before I could say I hoped he did something big because he’s finally going to get his chances without having to worry about getting benched the next day. He singled into right center and it was obvious from the location of the hit that Monroe would score easily.

The Yankees threatened again in the bottom of the inning with Matsui ripping a first pitch fastball into right and Posada working a nine-pitch walk that put runners at first and second with no outs. Then Cano grounded out to Inge on a ball that Brandon didn’t even see until it was about thirty feet away from him. I think the reason was probably because he expected it to be hit much harder. As it was, he fielded the dribbler and stepped on third before making an ill-advised throw to first that had no shot at getting Cano. Damon followed up by flying out to Granderson and Jeter hit a fielder’s choice to his counterpart Guillen to wrap up the inning. Yes, it was one of these kind of games.

Mussina and Verlander both had easy third innings, but that was just to give us a breather for the fourth. In the Tigers’ half, Guillen doubled and moved to third on a Pudge ground out (Pudge, feel free to unleash any time now) to bring up Craig Monroe. I’m pretty sure everybody in the stadium was surprised to see him square around, and if he would have been able to pull it down it might have worked. That didn’t happen though, and Mussina fielded the ball easily and threw him out to end the threat. That's the problem with bunting for a base hit, and that's why this was a terrible decision by Monroe. Even when the situation is right, you have to do it almost perfectly for it to work. He didn't...and it didn't.

To make things worse, the Yankees finally followed through with a threat in the bottom of the inning. It looked like maybe Verlander was going to work out another one as Matsui and Posada singled and walked again, but Cano flied out and was unable to move either up. With two outs, I went to the bathroom and hoped I would come back to wings on my table and the Tigers at the plate. Instead I came back to a 3-1 deficit as Johnny Damon put one into the third deck. I think expectations are slowly eroding in Yankee Stadium, because he received a curtain call for that, and I don’t think that would have happened in the late 90s. Verlander was looking tired when Jeter followed that with a double and Abreu smoked a grounder to first to end the inning. This is where things were just getting good, though.

The Tigers scored in each of the next three innings. The first came in the fifth when Thames doubled, moved to third on a wild pitch and scored on a Granderson sac fly. The second came the next inning when Guillen continued to smoke the ball, and this time pounded one over the right field wall to tie it up. The deciding run came from Thames and Curtis again when Thames singled, moved up on a passed ball, and took third on a bunt by Inge. That brought up Granderson and after falling down 0-2 quickly, he fouled off the next pitch and then connected with a fastball in and sent it all the way to the wall in left center. The Yankee outfielders must have been pulled in a bit to cut down the run, because they took a while to get out there and Granderson slid into third without much of a play. Just like that, the Tigers were up 4-3 and while the scoring was finished, the fun wasn’t.

Verlander was pulled in the sixth with one out and a 1-1 count on Robinson Cano. Leyland saw his decreased velocity and figured it was time to use the hook. This was an especially good time to do it, because the Yankees were in the only part of their lineup where they had consecutive batters who were lefties. That meant Walker could come in to burn two outs instead of just one. Well, it worked even better because he coaxed a double play from Cano to end the inning. That meant he could start the seventh against Damon as well.

He did, retired Damon and gave way to the guy we all love to see, Joel Zumaya. Zoom Zoom (he really needs to ink a deal with a Mazda dealership) came in and immediately established what kind of day he was going to have by striking out Jeter. They said Jeter tipped the ball, but on the replays I saw, he didn’t come with two inches of that ball. Zumaya then retired Abreu on a grounder, and the Yankees were down to six outs.

The eighth was even better as Sheffield hit a line drive right to Granderson on the first pitch, showing that he still has one of the fastest bats in the majors. Zumaya had Giambi and A-Rod after that, and he was more than up to the challenge. According to ESPN’s guns, he struck out Giambi on a 103 mph fastball. He threw two more at that speed to get two strikes, and finally dusted him off. I can’t remember for some reason but I think he got A-Rod with the hammer just like Verlander had earlier edit: It was another 100 mph fastball. Oh, and those fastballs that broke 100 so consistently? At the knees on the outside corner. Just sick.

That left the ninth to Todd Jones, who of course gave up a leadoff single to Matsui. He then struck out Posada in an impressive display that was capped with a called third strike. He induced a harmless fly ball from Cano, and ended the game on a shallow fly to center from Damon. Everybody in the bar whooped and hollered and we had to wait for our victory round of shots because just about every table had ordered one as well.

In case you haven’t believed before this game, I think it’s obvious now that the Tigers haven’t just come to compete in this series. They CAN compete. Not only can they compete, they can win. They are hitting Yankee pitching just well enough, and when professional pitchers make their pitch, outs will follow – yes, even against this lineup the Yankees have. This series may come down to which side can make their pitch more often, and with Randy Johnson and his bad back going tonight and Jaret Wright going tomorrow, there’s a decent chance the Tigers will be the team to do that more often. I’m going to rein in my excitement a bit, because I don’t want to overstate the importance of yesterday’s win, but this just became a best of three series and the Tigers now have home field advantage. By no means can the Yankees be counted out at this point, but whoever comes out of Sunday the series winner, I bet they’re going to feel like the toughest may be behind them.

Tonight it will be the Gambler against Randy Johnson. I obviously don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m pretty sure I’ll have fun finding out.

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