Tigers dance atop vanquished Yankees in Game 5

NEW YORK – From the heart of a stadium of more than 50,000 people in a city of eight million, the sound of 25 carried over the bleachers, into the neighborhoods, and all the way to the hardened city that's come to love them.

The goofy, spirited closer had thrown a fastball past the richest man in the game, igniting the ritual infield dance. They arrived solo, or in groups of two or three, Detroit Tigers taking a galloping detour across the Yankee Stadium lawn on their way to the American League Championship Series, where they'll play the waiting Texas Rangers.

There is only one underdog when the New York Yankees play, no matter the time or place, but especially in a winner-take-all game in the Bronx.

As Detroit's 66-year-old and occasionally irritable manager, Jim Leyland, had said on the eve of this American League Division Series, "I can count to 27."

That would be the number of championship flags that have flown in this neighborhood over the decades. So the story of a night like Thursday's is about the men who vanquished the Yankees by a fifth-game score of 3-2, along with the Yankees who slinked away, beaten in spite of their economic and habitual superiority.

To that end, Mike Ilitch, who bought the Tigers nearly two decades ago, took hold of his president and general manager – Dave Dombrowski – and confided, "This is one of the greatest days of my life."

Dombrowski, who in mid-summer had traded for Game 5 starter Doug Fister(notes) (who allowed one run in five determined innings) and Delmon Young(notes) (who hit a first-inning home run), stood in a visitors' clubhouse soaked in amber. He, personally, was soaked in the same.

"I hope," he said, "we can go a couple more rounds to give [Ilitch] the ultimate."

Across the locker room, his closer – Jose Valverde(notes), the eccentric Papa Grande who'd mowed down Curtis Granderson(notes), Robinson Cano(notes) and Alex Rodriguez(notes) in the ninth inning – held a magnum as he might a Tommy Gun, strafing the place with silliness. Say hello to his little friend, indeed.

Over the howling, Dombrowski admitted, "I think anybody in sports has a special feeling when it comes to the Yankees. … It gives it a little extra. I guess being here makes it a little more special."

The Tigers won their first playoff series in five years, when they reached the World Series and lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in five games. They'd touched up their roster, rode the likes of Justin Verlander(notes) and Miguel Cabrera(notes), gained 14 wins over 2010 and won their first division title since 1987.

"Ah," said Fister, who'd handed off to the Tigers' bullpen in the sixth inning, "it's a tremendous feeling."

Game 1 of the ALCS is Saturday in Arlington, Texas, which is where the Yankees were knocked out going on a year ago. In spite of their wealth – in talent and currency – they put another disappointing season between themselves and No. 27. And while their weakness was going to be pitching, they held the Tigers to a .228 batting average over five games, then watched Rodriguez bat .111, Mark Teixeira(notes) drive in a single run, and Derek Jeter(notes) strike out eight times.

The Yankees of 867 regular-season runs – second-best in baseball to the Boston Red Sox – outscored the Tigers 28-17 in the series, but scored 10 in Game 4, then returned with two in the critical game of their season.

From that, what will be remembered are their stars, and how they tanked at the hands of the Tigers.

Another series found A-Rod in particular. He struck out three times Thursday night, once with the bases loaded in the seventh inning and again to end the game. The season.

So, as the Tigers whooped and hollered down the hall, Rodriguez somberly pulled at a visor, said he'd had his chances, and missed them all.

He was supposed to have cleaned up these scenes in 2009, when he'd driven in 18 runs in the playoffs and helped hoist that No. 27. In three series since, he's batted .273, .190 and .111, and driven in five runs.

In a veritable candy shop of culprits for Yankee fans, Rodriguez will be the sweetest choice for the masses. He'd struck out last October in Texas to finish that season, and stood against Valverde to end it in this one.

As the stadium leaned in, Valverde – who'd saved 49 of 49 opportunities in the regular season and was one for one in the division series – started Rodriguez with a fastball for strike one. A split-fingered fastball was strike two. Rodriguez hadn't yet taken the bat off his shoulder.

"The whole series," Tigers catcher Alex Avila(notes) said, "we were pitching him inside, inside, inside. Today, we took a couple shots away. But, if he was going to hurt us in this series, he was going to have to pull the ball."

Rodriguez had knee surgery in July. He returned and almost immediately injured his thumb. The Tigers were counting on the fact his bat wouldn't be quick enough to react to pitches on his hands.

Valverde's two-strike pitch was a ball outside, a splitter that stayed in his hand too long. His final pitch to Rodriguez was a fastball.

"I was looking up in the zone," Rodriguez said. "You never know what pitch this guy is going to make."

The pitch was up. It was a fastball. He committed to the swing, realized it might be too high to hit hard, and tried to foul it off.

It beat him.

The Tigers rejoiced. Rodriguez hung his head. Ahead of him, the veteran Jorge Posada(notes), who'd batted .429 in the series and might have played his final game as a Yankee, stared from the top step. His manager, and many of his teammates, turned to leave.

"I felt like [crap], you know?" Rodriguez said. "I felt like [crap]."

The Tigers didn't notice. They took their celebration to the right of the mound, then pushed it out toward second base, their voices carrying until "New York, New York" blared from the stadium speakers, drowning them out.

That was all right, though. Detroit had already heard them.

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