What a difference one week makes.
That was last week: Evan Longoria put paid to to the Tampa Bay Rays’s stupefying resurrection, with the walkoff bomb that put paid to the Boston Red Sox’s more stupefying collapse, a collapse one half game ahead of the Atlanta Braves’ near-equally-stupefying collapse, he did it within three minutes of the Red Sox losing the game they most needed to win just to force a win-or-be-gone wild card tiebreaker.
This was this week: They finished what they barely started against the Texas Rangers, a third straight single-run loss after opening their American League division series with a staggering blowout win, and got to go home to lick their wounds, lament their comparative fan indifference, and pray that their winning ways don’t dissipate any time soon, perhaps even getting past the Rangers or whomever next postseason.
That was last week: The Yankees, well enough locked into the postseason but left only to shrug and prepare for it when Longoria sent Scott Proctor’s 2-2 pitch over the fence, were neither worried about nor indifferent to a Detroit Tigers club with pitching to burn, hitting to go, and the potential of making the Yankees work and slave for any and every chance they’d get, even if the Yankees might have believed they could come out nowhere but on top.
This is this week: They were forced by weather to pin their entire season on A.J. Burnett’s shaky shoulders Tuesday night, with the Tigers up two games to one. Burnett—with a lot of help from an acrobat named Curtis Granderson—squirmed his way out of a bases-loaded first-inning jam, took a little piece of advice from pitching coach Larry Rothschild about not pulling his pitching hand out of his glove too soon, and turned the strike zone into his own personal exercise lab for almost six innings worth of pinning the Tigers’ tails under their legs.
With the bases loaded and Cory Wade warming up swiftly in the Yankee bullpen, Granderson really hit his former team where it hurts when Don Kelly, who hadn’t poked his nose out of the Tigers’ den in the first three games, sent one out toward center field that threatened to clear the bases at minimum even if it stayed in the park. Kelly was swift enough on the bases, moreover, that he might have banked an inside-the-park grand slam. And Granderson, a Yankee by way of a three-team swap with the Tigers in the first place, almost helped it happen when he began to break toward the infield, only to correct himself on the proverbial dime and run back as though he had a process server on his trail.
Channeling Willie Mays, sort of, Granderson lunged for the over-the-shoulder catch and snapped his glove around the ball seconds before he hit the grass. He jerked his glove hand up to show the catch. It meant the side and a heave of relief from Burnett. “We don’t win that game tonight without defence,” the righthander admitted when the 10-1 win was in the books and the Yankees began making their plans for a win-or-be-gone showdown at Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees also don’t win that game without Detroit starter Rick Porcello making a couple of mistakes. Mistakes such as serving Derek Jeter an over-the-middle meatball that had two-run double mixed in with the oregano in the top of the third. Mistakes such as serving Granderson the same recipe two innings later with one aboard. Those two ingredients started the Yankees cooking in earnest as Burnett rehorsed himself from his shaky first and his mates hung in to hang a six-spot on the Tigers in the eighth.
If the Tigers thought Granderson’s high-wire act in the first was bad enough, they learned he wasn’t quite finished yet in the sixth, when Jhonny Peralta—with Kelly (two-out single) aboard—drove one to left center field that had every resemblance to an RBI double and keeping the Tigers within reach, before Granderson ran it down just far enough to take it on a diving, full-extension catch.
Now you get what sometimes seems scarce in this wild-card era: a genuine postseason series showdown. And it should prove more than interesting. The Yankees won’t be able to start CC Sabathia but can make him available for emergency relief if needed. Sabathia didn’t exactly look like his customary self in Game Three, but neither did Justin Verlander, also presumed available in relief. (At least until late Wednesday, the Tigers saying Verlander isn’t a bullpen factor Thursday.) The difference was that Verlander found his ways to work the Yankees away from overtaking him.
What you will see is a followup showdown between Tiger surprise Doug Fister, who shone after he came over at the non-waiver deadline, and Yankee rookie Ivan Nova, who came up on top as the Game One holdover continued last Saturday. Nobody expects this one to be easy for either side, but the Tigers have to be feeling just a little trepeditious. Everyone around them, including a few Tigers themselves, may have thought they’d have the easier postseason ride. Almost the way they manhandled the Yankees in 2006.
Except that these Yankees got off the mat and managed to overtake the Red Sox during a season in which it once looked like the Yankees were going to be left behind. And, even if they still might fret about their starting pitching and a few kinky bats, these Yankees can be accused of many things excluding their being pushovers. That ought to make Thursday night, potentially, at least as dramatic as last Wednesday night, even if to a smaller physical extent. With or without Curtis Wallenda.
The eyes of Texas are upon both. And ready for either.