NEW YORK -- Tigers fans spent the regular season wondering which pitcher was the real Max Scherzer. His first postseason start, the biggest outing of his career, provided a pretty good answer.
He also provided a tied AL Division Series heading back to Detroit, where Justin Verlander will have an electric atmosphere at Comerica Park surrounding him and a pitching duel with CC Sabathia in front of him. The matchup that was meant to open the best-of-five series will now essentially start off a best-of-three.
It took a pitching gem from the Tigers' No. 3 starter, and an escape from their perfect closer, amidst a deafening crowd at Yankee Stadium to get them there.
"You never know what's going to happen," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said of Scherzer. "Big stage, and he was terrific."
Going into the series, Verlander was the Tigers hurler who had fans and media wondering if he had a bit of postseason greatness in him, a chance for a no-hit bid to open the postseason like Roy Halladay did last October. Scherzer had the talent, but not the consistency. For 5 1/3 innings, he had the outs.
This was the Scherzer fans remembered from his shutdown summer of 2010. It's the Scherzer his teammates knew he had in him.
"I expected him to be," catcher Alex Avila said, "because he's good. I'll be completely honest with you, 15 wins is pretty good in the American League.
Whether it surprised the Yankees is debatable, but it kept them off guard. A pair of fly balls that cleared the short fence in right field frustrated Scherzer at Yankee Stadium in early April, though an offensive barrage that afternoon earned him the win anyway. This time, he turned the tables, though it looked eerily reminiscent at the start.
He threw seven straight balls that saddled him with back-to-back two-out walks and a 3-0 count to Mark Teixeira, who homered off Scherzer in that April game. Scherzer escaped the first inning with a popout to second and rolled off 11 consecutive outs.
It was a power-pitching form the Tigers saw in Scherzer when they acquired him from Arizona in the trade that sent Curtis Granderson to New York. With a fastball that topped out at 98, five miles above his regular-season average, his changeup became a dangerous swing-and-miss pitch.
"He was really good, the best I've ever seen him," Teixeira said. "Great fastball, his changeup was really, really good, and the numbers don't lie. He just dominated us."
The key, Scherzer said, was taking the ballpark out of his mind.
"You can't really focus on the ballpark per se," he said. "I was more focused on the quality of their hitters, and making sure I was executing pitches throughout the night -- even when I was behind in the count, never giving in in a situation where it could cost me."
All the while, Scherzer had a lead to protect courtesy of Cabrera, whose first swing off old friend and fellow Venezuelan Freddy Garcia cleared the short right-field fence for his fifth postseason home run, a two-run shot, in the opening inning. His liner up the middle in the sixth was the first of back-to-back RBI singles -- the other from Victor Martinez -- to double the lead to 4-0 and knock Garcia out of the game.
"We needed run support," Cabrera said. "We needed to score early in the game to give breathing room to our starting pitcher."
Not until Robinson Cano flared a bloop single just out of Delmon Young's reach in short left field did the Yankees have a hit, a one-out single in the sixth. Scherzer stayed in until a leadoff walk and a Jorge Posada single chased him in the seventh.
Joaquin Benoit ended the threat there, spotting a changeup on the outside corner to strike out Derek Jeter and strand both runners, before Granderson's leadoff homer in the eighth broke up the shutout. Once Don Kelly singled in another run in the ninth, the Tigers had their four-run lead back.
They needed all of it once the Yankees awakened against Jose Valverde. He went perfect in save situations all year, and he didn't have a save chance this time, coming on to start the ninth with the four-run lead. By the time he stared down Cano with two outs and the tying run on base, he couldn't tell the difference.
It fell apart in a hurry, a first-pitch home run from Nick Swisher and a triple from Posada. Once Russell Martin walked, New York had the tying run at the plate and its crowd roaring. Once Avila slipped on the on-deck circle trying to chase down Granderson's popup for the potential third out, the Yankees seemingly had fate. Granderson walked to bring the winning run to the plate in the form of Cano.
"You know, it was a little hard, I think," Valverde said. "That's what happens sometimes. Nothing you can do. You do the most you can. I throw my pitches, my split-finger, my sinker and my fastball. The umpire missed a couple pitches. I think I missed a couple, too."
At the moment he needed to, he made it, mixing in a splitter with a slew of sinkers to get a ground ball from Cano. He officially made a winner out of Scherzer, whose performance seemingly hours earlier gave them the chance, and gave Verlander the momentum to go with the ball.
"We did OK," Leyland said. "If you make pitches, you have a chance."