NEW YORK -- Victor Martinez knew Sunday morning he could be playing his last game against Mariano Rivera. So during batting practice, he took a moment to stop over and have his picture taken with the great closer.
Hours later, as he rounded the bases on the game-tying home run he hit into the second deck in right field off one of Rivera's cutters, he had his picture perfect moment. And the Tigers, who had gone 14 years since saddling Rivera with a blown save until this weekend, had gotten to the game's greatest closer twice in three days.
In a game of missed opportunities, the Tigers had seemingly overcome theirs. Yet just as quickly as they had new life, Brett Gardner's walk-off homer off Jose Veras in the bottom of the ninth took it away, sending Detroit to a 5-4 defeat and sending the Tigers out of town with two losses in three games.
"At the end, we came out a loss," Martinez said. "But you know what, man, they were three good games. There's nothing you can do about it. We went out there and fought. That was it."
Instead of overcoming missed opportunities, the Tigers ended up with new ones to lament, and conflicting emotions about the way they played. Maybe that's fitting in a game that ended up as crazy as this.
They left 10 runners on base in 4 1/3 innings against struggling Andy Pettitte, including two bases-loaded chances to break the game open. They left 12 runners on over the first six innings, and they missed a chance to bring up Cabrera as the potential tying run in the eighth inning because of a questionable call at second base and a misread by Austin Jackson on the basepaths that led to an inning-ending double play.
Yet they tagged the game's greatest closer for just the third two-homer inning of his career, and hit three homers off of him for the series.
"It's a great feeling," Martinez said of his blast off Rivera. "There's no doubt about it."
Justin Verlander, taken off the hook for a potential loss following the rally, called it a never-say-die attitude. Jackson called it a confidence builder.
Miguel Cabrera, whose second consecutive homer off Rivera led off the ninth inning to make it a one-run game, called it two losses. Not even owning Rivera for two games and adding to his standing as the game's most dangerous hitter could ease the sting.
"I don't know how to explain it," he said of his sudden success off Rivera. "The only thing we can explain is that we lost the game. That's all that matters right now. It's about getting it done and trying to win games. At the end of the game, the home runs mean nothing to us."
Cabrera is a bottom-line player. No matter how great the individual feats, he doesn't want them overshadowing his team, which makes him reluctant to talk much on days like this. He wants to win, and helping his team do that is what matters most for him.
Still, nobody who saw Cabrera for these three games will soon forget what he did. He went 7-for-13 with two walks and a strikeout for the series, and homered in three consecutive games, each to a different part of the field. Two of them came off Rivera, joining him with Edgar Martinez as the only hitters to homer twice off Rivera in the same season.
In a series that focused so much on Alex Rodriguez, Cabrera still ended up the reluctant star.
Cabrera was 0-for-5 lifetime off Rivera entering the weekend. He left as the first player in history to homer off Rivera in consecutive at-bats. Friday's dramatic game-tying shot went to straightaway center field, hitting the netting that covers Monument Park beyond the fence. He had fouled back-to-back pitches off his left knee beforehand, leaving him in pain to limp around the bases.
Sunday's opposite-field homer to the short porch in right was suspenseful for those wondering if he could do it, but not dramatic because of the two-run Yankees lead. Cabrera was on deck in the eighth inning when Gardner made a highlight-reel catch at the fence to rob Torii Hunter.
Jackson, who has been running aggressively all week, was past second base when Gardner made the catch. He doubled back, making sure to re-touch second, then suddenly turned back around and stopped there as Gardner flipped the ball to left fielder Alfonso Soriano.
"That split second, I was looking down and touching the bag so I could go back to first," Jackson said. "I was looking back up to read the throw. I saw the ball on the ground, so I thought that he hit the fence and it popped out."
Instead of a showdown with David Robertson with a chance to tie, Cabrera led off the ninth with a chance to do little more than set the tone.
"We focus on getting good at-bats, look for good pitches, be aggressive at the plate," Cabrera said of the approach against Rivera.
He saw five cutters in a row, the last of which he sent out.
"The ball was up. It was not where it was supposed to be," Rivera said.
Two batters later, Martinez hit a no-doubt drive to right field to tie the game at 4, giving Rivera his third consecutive blown save for the first time in his career.
"At least it's only the first time," Rivera said.
Veras, the former Yankee, entered for the bottom of the ninth and, despite some deep drives, came within an out of sending the game into extra innings.
Then came Gardner, whose RBI single won Friday's game after Rivera's blown save. He sent a drive into the seats near the Yankees' bullpen in right field to end it.