NEW YORK -- The Tigers departed the Bronx in the wee hours Friday morning and flew to Texas for the American League Championship Series. It's difficult to imagine any amount of turbulence on their way could match what they faced at Yankee Stadium on Thursday.
For the first time since the 1968 World Series, the Tigers won a winner-takes-all game in a postseason series. The way they held on for a 3-2 win over the Yankees, it took every heart-pounding out, every stress-inducing pitch to get there.
Don Kelly took the abuse from the Bronx Zoo in the outfield bleachers, but he silenced them with a first-inning home run as part of back-to-back Tigers shots. Kelly broke their hearts at the right-field fence when he caught Derek Jeter's eighth-inning drive that nearly pulled New York ahead.
"Oh, boy," Kelly groaned when asked later what he was thinking while he was backpedaling. "We've seen him do it a thousand times, go the other way and use that short porch. I couldn't tell how well he hit it."
Joaquin Benoit had bases loaded around him and the largest crowd in new Yankee Stadium history on top of him, yet he struck out Nick Swisher to work his way out of the jam and preserve the lead.
Benoit described the deafening sound of the playoff crowd with two words: "Yankee Stadium."
"Everybody's loud, and I think the adrenaline rush is amazing," Benoit said. "I think this is the best I've felt all year. It was a great win for us."
Finally, Jose Valverde bounced out of the bullpen and into the sights of Yankee fans, who made him a target of their pent-up angst after he declared the Division Series over following Game 2 here last Sunday. Once Valverde set down the heart of the Yankees' lineup in order, capped with a strikeout of Alex Rodriguez for the first 1-2-3 inning since the opening one, the game was truly over.
"It's not easy," Valverde said, "but what I do today is for all my family, all my friends and God, too, for all the energy to be on the mound to do what I had to do. It's great today. "
When asked if he had any predictions for the ALCS, Valverde laughed.
"Not yet," he said. "Not yet."
Tigers fans who remember the AL Central tiebreaker loss in Minnesota two years ago kept waiting for the Yankees to rally. Detroit held off New York's late charge and celebrated on the field at Yankee Stadium.
"The Yankees are so good that I would be lying if I said it didn't give me a little extra satisfaction to be able to do it here in the fifth game," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "I don't mean that disrespectfully, I mean that respectfully. ... I was just talking to [general manager] Dave Dombrowski -- other than the American League pennant and the World Series, this will be a game I'll remember for the rest of my life."
He won't be the only one.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi went to his bullpen early and often after rookie starter Ivan Nova gave up first-inning homers to Kelly and Delmon Young and escaped a jam in the second, but Leyland stuck with starter Doug Fister through five innings and 92 pitches. New York had burned through four pitchers by the time Fister got a pat on the back and Leyland made a call to his bullpen for Max Scherzer to start the bottom of the sixth.
Five days after taking the loss in the series opener, Fister allowed baserunners in all but the first inning, including a bases-loaded jam with one out in the fourth, but he shut down the Bronx Bombers until Robinson Cano lined a mistake into the right-field seats for a fifth-inning solo shot.
The Tigers were hoping to add on runs to give their pitching some room for error against a Yankees lineup with seemingly too much balance to shut down. Austin Jackson aggressively took second base after leading off the fifth with a hit, and Victor Martinez scored him with a clutch two-out RBI single, but that was it. In the end, Martinez's RBI stood as the difference in the game as Benoit stared at his jam in the seventh.
Asked if he thought the Tigers could win with three runs, Kelly smiled.
"No," he said. "Our pitchers did an insane job."
It was on them. Somehow, they took it.
Scherzer, who was making his first relief appearance since his rookie season in 2008, retired the side in the sixth, but Jeter reached with a perfectly placed ground ball in the seventh. Leyland went to his bullpen to summon Benoit.
Former Tigers star Curtis Granderson greeted Benoit with a lined single, then Benoit couldn't field Cano's dribbler to the third-base side of the mound.
With the bases loaded, Benoit struck out Rodriguez for the second out, but he lost Mark Teixeira to a one-out walk that plated Jeter and put Granderson on third as the potential tying run. Benoit finished the frame by striking out Swisher.
"I needed to do something to get out of it," Benoit said. "I went to my best pitch. The fastball is my best pitch. It's what was working."
Benoit recovered to get through the eighth, inducing by Jeter's fly ball that sent Kelly to the foot of the short fence in right field before he corralled the third out with Brett Gardner running.
"That was unbelievable," Kelly said. "Doug did a great job. Max comes in, and it was a gusty win, especially with all the opportunities they had with the bases loaded a couple of times. Their lineup is unbelievable. Just being able to hold them to two runs, they did an outstanding job."
That set up Valverde, whose 51st save in as many chances this season was remarkably peaceful, but it was still his biggest of the year.
Valverde could have had his biggest post-save celebration yet, but his teammates didn't give him a chance, nearly tackling him on the first-base side of the mound.
"We had the guy that we wanted to beat," Swisher said. "All that talking he's been doing, man -- as much as I don't want to say it, I do have to say, 'Congratulations.' Those guys pitched extremely well this series, especially against a potent lineup like ours."