Rain, Valverde make for great theater in Game 2

NEW YORK – Jose Valverde(notes), the pot-bellied closer for the Detroit Tigers, had just concluded a 34-pitch, squall-soaked, slop-filled, gyrating ode to himself on Sunday evening at Yankee Stadium.

He was in a good mood.

“It’s over,” he said.

Tigers closer Jose Valverde looks skyward after retiring Robinson Cano to finish Detroit's 5-3 victory in Game 2.
(AP)

Surrounded by reporters, he stared earnestly.

What, exactly, is over?

“This,” he said. “Two more games. When are the games? Monday and Tuesday? Tuesday we celebrate and that’s it.”

The Tigers had just won, 5-3. The American League Division Series was tied, 1-1. CC Sabathia(notes) and Justin Verlander(notes) would pitch Monday night in Detroit.

Wait, what?

“Over,” he said.

Valverde, who’d come a hitter or so from combusting the Tigers’ season, who hadn’t blown a save all season but very nearly yakked up a four-run lead in October in the Bronx, seemed kind of serious. We gazed back at him. Had Valverde just guaranteed victory? Did he have those guts? That recklessness? That nerve? That screw loose?

He burst into laughter.

“I’m joking, guys,” he shouted.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Maybe he believes that much in Verlander, and then Rick Porcello(notes) (against A.J. Burnett(notes)) in Game 4. Maybe he’s seen enough of the Yankees’ lineup – Alex Rodriguez(notes) and Mark Teixeira(notes), together, have one hit in the series and Sunday hit one ball out of the infield – to think what Yankee fans are thinking. Both were booed after late-inning pop-outs. Maybe he has taken the Yankees’ best shot, and the Tigers still left town with a split.

Maybe he’s just really, really nutty and will say anything.

Regardless, this is the beauty of Valverde, of Papa Grande being Papa Grande, of 49 saves in 49 opportunities, and then a seemingly benign postseason moment running so far off the tracks it nearly plowed straight through the Tigers’ dugout.

What it became was not just a mess, but a riveting mess. What he created was that corner into which the Yankees always seem to push a team this time of year, setting them up for the kill shot.

What followed was great theater.

Handed a 5-1 lead in the ninth inning, Valverde had required 17 pitches to get the first out, by which point he’d given to the Yankees a home run, a triple, a walk, a sacrifice fly, and half the Tigers’ lead.

He’d stood out there in what had become a downpour. He’d thrown pitch after pitch, sinkers after sliders after splitters. He’d evil-eyed umpire Eric Cooper from behind splattered goggles. He’d grinned when one Yankee – Jorge Posada(notes), who would triple – asked that the ball be checked for irregularities. He’d watched his catcher – Alex Avila(notes) – stagger after a foul pop that would have ended the game, settle under the ball, then slip on the plastic on-deck circle, falling flat on the Yankees logo, the ball landing with a splat a few feet away.

He’d been carried into what surely would be a Yankee highlight, one of those mini-documentaries they’re always running in sepia on that big scoreboard in center field.

As a guy seated in the press box asked, “Why is everything the Yankees do presented like it was D-Day?”

The crowd, coaxed to its feet by the drama, was in full holler. The infield was turning into a lagoon. Yankees led off first and second. Two were out. Robinson Cano(notes), who’d crushed the Tigers with a grand slam and six RBIs the night before, was on Valverde’s fastball. After taking strike one, he’d fouled off the next three pitches.

Valverde was nearing a season-high for pitches. One, a fastball to Cano, was right down the middle, and narrowly missed Cano’s bat barrel.

“Ooooh,” Valverde said to himself.

He thought he’d lost the game then and there.

“I knew he wanted to do a home run to me,” Valverde said.

Apparently, they are neighbors in the Dominican Republic town of San Pedro de Macoris. They know each other well. Valverde would challenge Cano, and Cano likely expected him to.

After Cano’s third foul ball, the rain was falling hard enough to threaten the game. Cooper, the plate ump, went to the mound. He asked if the footing was OK, if Valverde could grip the ball.

First baseman Miguel Cabrera (left) and closer Jose Valverde celebrate as Robinson Cano is retired for the final out of Detroit's 5-3 win in Game 2.
(US Presswire)

Valverde nodded emphatically.

“It’s good,” he told him.

Cano signaled to a batboy, who brought him a towel, which he used to dry his face and hands.

“It was unreal,” third baseman Brandon Inge(notes) said.

“Play the game long enough,” the catcher, Avila, said, “you’re going to go through innings like that.”

And so they did, clinging to Papa Grande, who by then had regained his command.

“The umpire missed a couple pitches,” he said, grinning. “I think I missed a couple, too.”

What remained, Valverde decided, was one more pitch. The count to Cano was 0-and-2.

“I said, ‘You want to hit a home run, you can do it, but it’ll be against the best pitch I have right now, the sinker,’ ” Valverde recalled.

So, through the sheets of rain, against the best the Yankees have, into the jaws of all they expect to happen here, Valverde threw that sinker.

“He hit it to second base,” Valverde confirmed.

Oh, he’d actually had one other thought as he released the ball, a thought that trailed him into the clubhouse.

“I’ll win it,” he said.

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Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Oct 2, 2011