Circumstances have taken a dramatic turn.
The Tigers, who sputtered down the stretch, can capture a playoff series for the first time since winning the World Series in 1984 when they try to eliminate the Yankees in Game 4 of their ALDS at Comerica Park on Saturday.
Detroit lost 31 of its final 50 games in the regular season, including a three-game sweep by last-place Kansas City on the final weekend to blow its shot at the AL Central title. The Tigers lost their sixth straight with an 8-4 loss in Game 1 on Tuesday.
After a Wednesday rainout, Detroit ended talk of a New York sweep by rallying for a 4-3 victory in Game 2 on Thursday.
Kenny Rogers helped parlay that momentum into a 6-0 victory in Game 3 on Friday. The 41-year-old left-hander was brilliant, striking out eight and yielding only five hits over 7 2-3 innings to put New York on the brink of elimination.
“I just think, as much as anything else, I wanted this win for us as a team, but I wanted it for myself, my family, everything,” Rogers said. “I wanted to do well and leave nothing out there. And this is probably one of the wins that I’m never going to forget for sure.”
The Yankees, who feature a lineup in which every player has been an All-Star at some point in his career, have scored just three runs over the last 18 innings—all on Johnny Damon’s three-run homer in the fourth inning in Game 2.
New York has failed to score in 14 straight innings and has advanced just one runner in that span. The Yankees were hitless in 18 at-bats with runners on base in Game 3.
“We got a little overanxious at times,” New York manager Joe Torre said. “We’re a better ballclub than that. Offensively, we came up empty tonight and didn’t do all of the things we needed to do to win.”
The Yankees received another weak performance from reigning AL MVP Alex Rodriguez, who went 0-for-3 despite being moved back to the cleanup spot after batting sixth in the first two games. He’s 1-for-11 with four strikeouts in the series, doesn’t have an RBI in his last 11 postseason games and is 5-for-43 (.116) in his last 12 playoff contests.
“Tomorrow is the whole season,” Rodriguez said. “Nothing else matters. We have to go out and win a game.”
Torre took Gary Sheffield out of the lineup, putting Jason Giambi at first base and inserting Bernie Williams as designated hitter. Williams—who has a major league record 80 postseason RBIs—went 0-for-3, although he just missed a homer on a drive that went foul down the left field line in the fifth inning.
Sheffield, who went 1-for-8 in the first two games of the series, could be back for Game 4.
The Yankees will need starter Jaret Wright (11-7, 4.49 ERA) to help keep them in the game. Wright is making his 10th career postseason start—he went 3-0 with a 4.73 ERA in his first five before going 0-4 with a 12.89 ERA in his last four.
The right-hander has pitched twice with his team facing elimination.
Most recently, he allowed four runs and six hits over 5 1-3 innings in a 12-3 loss to Houston in Game 5 of a 2004 NLDS while pitching for Atlanta.
His other such start came with Cleveland, against Jim Leyland’s Florida Marlins in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. Wright yielded just one run and two hits over 6 1-3 innings and was in line for the win before Jose Mesa blew a save in the ninth inning of a 3-2, 11-inning loss.
“I happen to be involved in another big game Jaret Wright pitched in, Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, and he was lights out,” Leyland said. “We’re going to have our hands full and we know that.”
Wright is 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA in two career starts at Comerica Park. He went 2-0 with a 3.86 ERA in his final four regular-season outings.
“Jaret has thrown the ball well for us,” Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. “We’re confident in him, but we’ve got to do something on offense. We haven’t hit in the last two games. That’s the bottom line.”
Detroit shuffled its lineup Friday, pushing down left-handed hitters Curtis Granderson and Sean Casey against left-hander Randy Johnson. Granderson will be back at leadoff and Casey will bat third Saturday.
Tigers starter Jeremy Bonderman (14-8, 4.08) makes his first career postseason start. Bonderman also pitched well down the stretch, going 3-0 with a 3.22 ERA over his last four outings.
The right-hander, though, went 0-2 with a 5.68 ERA in two starts against New York this year.
“They’re a great hitting team,” Bonderman said. “Still everybody’s got weaknesses. You just got to expose them. That’s what I’m going to try and do.”
Despite the series lead, the Tigers aren’t yet looking ahead to a possible ALCS matchup against the Oakland Athletics.
“We really haven’t finished everything yet,” Casey said. “We have a 2-1 lead, but that doesn’t mean anything.”