On Harwell's night, Tigers show grit
Ordonez's lead-saving catch complements Damon's homer
DETROIT -- Ernie Harwell would've loved calling this game.
A surprising rookie comes through with clutch RBIs for the Tigers. A veteran free-agent acquisition haunts his old team with a home run. A bullpen effort helps out an ailing starter. An aging star comes through with a game-saving catch that few expected. Then a closer at the top of his game strikes out the heart of baseball's most formidable lineup.
An evening that began with the Tigers celebrating Harwell's incredible life ended with the club celebrating an impressive 5-4 win over the defending World Series champion Yankees. And a Detroit team that was treading water heading home from a 1-4 road trip had to feel a jolt of energy.
"It was rocking tonight after that [catch]," said Ryan Perry, the fifth of six relievers to fill nine innings on short notice.
Perry was talking about Magglio Ordonez's sliding grab, which turned Derek Jeter's potential go-ahead hit into the final out of the eighth inning. The Comerica Park crowd, though, seemed to be loud on every clutch play.
They had plenty, from start to finish.
"It wasn't a good situation tonight, to be honest with you," manager Jim Leyland said. "But we got through it."
Leyland's pitching situation took a turn for the worse when Dontrelle Willis came down with a 102-degree fever overnight. Detroit's bullpen had to fill innings, starting with left-hander Brad Thomas and continuing with winning pitcher Eddie Bonine (3-0), who tossed 2 1/3 scoreless innings.
Combine those two efforts with Joel Zumaya's contribution, and the Tigers' bullpen limited the vaunted Yankees offense to two runs over the first seven innings before holding on by their fingertips in the eighth.
The Tigers were working with a lead after the first inning thanks to young Brennan Boesch, whose two-run single in the opening inning continued his early-season tear. His first game against the Yankees was a two-hit, three-RBI effort that included his first career hit off a left-hander -- a triple off Boone Logan to drive in the eventual deciding run, no less -- and the outstanding compliment of an intentional walk in the fifth inning with a runner in scoring position.
Johnny Damon, by contrast, was facing the Yankees for the 137th time in his 16-year career, but the first time since winning a title with New York last year. Damon didn't make a big deal about his reunion, but he made a big impact, driving a fifth-inning fastball from Yankees starter Sergio Mitre (0-1) into the right-field seats for his second home run of the year.
"I always have fire," Damon said. "I'm always trying to beat the other team, old teammates or whatnot. I'm just proud of our guys."
By contrast, Mark Teixeira's two-run homer off Thomas in the third inning marked New York's only damage until the Yankees rallied in the eighth. After Zumaya ended a bases-loaded jam in the sixth inning and retired the side in order in the seventh, back-to-back singles and a walk loaded the bases again with nobody out, putting the potential tying run on first.
Marcus Thames' infield single off Zumaya and Brett Gardner's ground ball off former Yankees lefty Phil Coke whittled the lead to a run and put that would-be tying tally on third.
Enter Perry, the 23-year-old setup man, to face Jeter. Perry nearly had Jeter for strike three on a check-swing, but Jeter's bat didn't quite go around. His next pitch missed to run the count full, sending the runners in motion as Jeter lofted a fly ball slicing toward the right-field corner and sent the crowd into anxiety, not to mention Tigers players.
"I looked back, and I thought it was right at him," Perry said. "And then you just start seeing it tail off, and you're like, 'Oh, oh, oh.'"
Said Boesch: "I was on the bench just yelling, 'Go, Mags, go.'"
When Leyland raved last month about Ordonez's start to the season, he made a point to say the outfielder is playing the best defense the manager has seen from him. Ordonez, in turn, said this might be the best he has felt defensively. Still, this was asking a lot.
The sliding catch is a play Ordonez has made into an art form over the years. The closing speed to get close enough to try is something new.
"He had a good break on the ball," Leyland said. "He was smart enough to kick it in gear because he knew it was tailing away. He couldn't time that ball. He couldn't one-gate that ball. He had to go get it, and that's what he did."
Ordonez literally got his glove under the ball as it fell.
"When it was hit, I knew it was probably going to have to be a diving play," said center fielder Austin Jackson, who contributed an RBI groundout in the second inning. "That was a great moment for us and a turning point in the game for us."
If so, then Jose Valverde's ninth-inning performance was an exclamation point. Facing the second, third and fourth hitters in the Yankees' order, Valverde used a nasty splitter to strike out Nick Swisher, Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez in order. After the first two, he walked off the mound, knelt and made a sign of the cross.
After A-Rod swung and missed for the final out, Valverde jumped for joy.
"It's not reaction," Valverde said. "It's joy."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.