Big third too much for Tigers in Game 1
Mini-rallies don't add up against unforgiving Yankees lineup
NEW YORK -- The music blared from the Yankee Stadium loudspeaker. The chant of "M-V-P" from the sellout crowd echoed down from the seats after another clutch hit from Derek Jeter. Bobby Abreu stepped to the plate, Gary Sheffield stood on deck, and Jason Giambi was waiting in the dugout.
Welcome back to postseason baseball, Detroit Tigers.
Their first playoff game since 1987 looked quite a bit like how their 2006 regular season ended, but the backdrop was vastly different. Giambi's two-run homer capped a five-run third inning before Abreu's two-run single in the sixth helped send Detroit to an 8-4 loss on Tuesday night in the Bronx.
The Tigers weren't overwhelmed, they insisted to a man. They were as fearless of the Yankee Stadium electricity as they were guiltless over last week's collapse. They were nonetheless outplayed.
"I thought they handled it pretty good, really," "I thought they handled it pretty good, really," said manager Jim Leyland, who said the media buildup to this series made it look like a freshman team scrimmaging the varsity squad.
They weren't freshmen, but they weren't the postseason heroes, either. Detroit's return to October baseball will be remembered for a Michigander, but it'll be former Kalamazoo native Derek Jeter's 5-for-5 night.
"We certainly showed some grit tonight," starting pitcher Nate Robertson said. "We played a pretty good game. We really did. There's so many things that could've changed, little tiny moments. This team will be all right. We played a tough ballgame."
Leyland emphasized aggressiveness as his Tigers entered what for many marked the first postseason game of a lifetime. Get pitches elevated, he pointed out, and they'll have a chance to do damage. He meant the Tigers' approach against Chien-Ming Wang. It arguably became the undoing for Robertson.
Robertson's first career postseason start differed from his regular-season finale in the kind of damage, though not the amount. He had battled New York in two difficult losses this season, the latter a 2-0 defeat here opposite Wang, by attacking Yankees hitters. He tried to do the same on Tuesday, but the Yankees hit back.
"I have a great deal of respect for Nate Robertson," Yankees manager Joe Torre said, "because he certainly isn't afraid to challenge you."
The Tigers' best pitcher for much of the second half looked like he had recaptured that form in the opening innings. He worked inside early and often with his fastball and two-seamer, and he broke the bats of three of the first 10 hitters he faced. The last, a Johnny Damon squibber that rolled under Robertson's glove, led off the third-inning outburst.
It was a ground ball that pitchers normally handle, but Robertson slipped and fell as he went to retrieve it.
"You jam a guy," Robertson said, "and the ball comes off [the bat] a little funny. I go after the ball, and my foot goes out a little bit. If I make a play, get the out, that whole inning could've changed. It's a very fragile game. Especially in the playoffs, one little situation can trigger something big."
Robertson put an 0-2 count on Jeter and just missed the inside corner on a 1-2 pitch. With the count full, Jeter lined a double to the left-center-field gap before Abreu plated two runs with his liner to the fence in right-center.
If the pitch to Jeter was one Robertson wanted for a call, his pitch to Abreu was the one he'd like to recall.
"I've done pretty good against Abreu," he said, "and I left a slider over the middle of the plate. That's the one pitch I'd like to take back."
After Sheffield singled in Abreu, Giambi battled out of another 0-2 hole to turn on an inside fastball, launching it deep to right over Ordonez and the fence.
It was the kind of inning Robertson had avoided even in his bad starts over the second half. His progress this season had been in damage control, keeping good rallies from becoming huge ones. As it was, he hadn't seen a rally like that since the infamous April 17 start against the Indians that brought out Leyland's now-famous postgame meeting.
After Tuesday's big inning, the Tigers looked like the reeling club that a 19-31 stretch run had suggested. When Alex Rodriguez followed Giambi with a single, it would've been a logical situation to pull Robertson for a long reliever and try to mop up the rest of the way. Instead, Leyland surprisingly stuck with Robertson, and the plan just about worked.
"Our bullpen was fine," Leyland said, "but I thought Robertson had settled down. Actually, that one inning I thought he pitched real good, and he had a couple innings after that were easy."
Robertson retired 10 of the next 12 hitters he faced, allowing the Tigers a chance to get back into the game behind a Craig Monroe solo homer and back-to-back RBI doubles from Placido Polanco and Sean Casey in the fifth. With Robertson one out away from retiring the side in order in the sixth, another Damon single and a Jeter double unraveled the starter's recovery.
Both pitches were decent -- Damon reached for a two-seamer nearly in the dirt and Jeter turned on an inside fastball. Robertson tried to move ahead with a first-pitch strike on Abreu, whose ground ball to the right side seemingly rolled forever before eluding Polanco's outstretched glove.
The attempt was doubly painful for Polanco, whose separated left shoulder took another impact.
"I thought I had a chance," Polanco said. "I don't know, I have to find a way to dive without hurting, or having my shoulder popping out."
Polanco stayed in the game, but Robertson did not, leaving with seven runs allowed on 12 hits in 5 2/3 innings. Just 10 on the 27 balls put in play against him were on the ground, and New York's left-handed hitters went 5-for-14 off him.
"I thought Nate actually did a good job," Leyland said. "He had the one bad inning, and they took advantage of it. There were a couple bad pitches, but overall, he probably didn't pitch as bad as it seemed."
The same would go for the Tigers. Their losing streak now spans a week, yet they can still look at Wednesday's Game 2 and see a realistic chance to steal home-field advantage.
"We look at it as, now we're 0-1 instead of 0-6," said Curtis Granderson, whose three-hit game defied his rookie status. "The season's done with. Come back and we can even this thing out in one day. That's the fun part of being in the playoffs."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.