NEW YORK -- When Detroit catcher Alex Avila slipped on the on-deck circle and lost Curtis Granderson's foul popup in the Yankee Stadium lights in the pouring rain, one couldn't help but think the Yankees were destined to complete a four-run, ninth-inning comeback to snatch Game 2 of the American League Division Series.
For those who have followed the "Core Four" Yankees through their decade and a half of dominance, the missed opportunity with the tying run at the plate appeared to be yet another of the inexplicable but crucial breaks they have received over the years, the sort of occurrences that make even the staunchest believer in science and sabermetrics reconsider the value of the "Yankee mystique."
The popup fell between Avila and third baseman Brandon Inge on the dirt separating the visiting dugout and the infield grass, and for a moment, it was Timo Perez lost on the basepaths, Byung-Hyun Kim coming apart at the seams.
But despite giving up two runs with seemingly more on the way after walking Granderson with two outs, Tigers closer Jose Valverde escaped baseball's most celebrated haunted house unscathed. After a called strike and three more foul balls hit by the dangerous Robinson Cano, Valverde threw an 0-2 sinker that brought about a harmless grounder to second base. The groundout ended the game, tied the series and shifted its momentum as the two teams travel to Detroit.
"I said, 'Wow, this might be our inning. We might have a break there,'" New York's Mark Teixeira said. "You can't come through every single time. Robbie's been so big for us all year long. It's tough to score a lot of runs off a closer like that."
"It was kind of the worst time of day," Avila said. "Twilight, with the rain coming down. Initially I didn't see it, then I picked it up and had a beat on it. Then I ended up stepping on the on-deck circle and slipped. I had no chance to recover after that."
The roller-coaster final frame seemed at first a formality after the Yankees had scored only on Curtis Granderson's solo homer in the eighth against Joaquin Benoit. Then, Yankees manager Joe Girardi made the decision to bring Luis Ayala in to pitch so he could save David Robertson and Rafael Soriano for later in the series.
Ayala hit leadoff man Jhonny Peralta with a pitch and later gave up an RBI single to Don Kelly to give Detroit a 5-1 cushion heading into the bottom of the ninth.
"We still have two more games in a row, in a sense, and we're down three," Girardi said of his decision to use Ayala, who was 2-2 with a 2.09 ERA during the regular season. "If we got it down to two, we were going to make a change. Being down three runs and you know what Valverde has done all year long, we decided to go to Ayala."
Valverde came in with a 5.79 ERA pitching in non-save situations during the regular season, and he again was forced to walk the tight rope as a steady rain turned into a heavy one over the course of the inning.
Nick Swisher blasted a leadoff homer to right-center field. Jorge Posada followed with a triple, and the Yankee fans in attendance could sense another postseason comeback developing.
Posada scored on a sacrifice fly before Valverde blew a 96-mph fastball past Derek Jeter to earn a strikeout prior to Granderson's walk. The crowd greeted Cano with its loudest roar of three days of postseason baseball, a din that at once hoped to energize the batter and spook the pitcher.
As much noise as those 50,596 fans made, Valverde wasn't listening.
"I noticed nobody," said Valverde, who recorded a Major League best 49 saves and posted a 2.24 ERA during the regular season. "The only person I listen to is my catcher, I get the sign, and that's it."
"He was kind of oblivious to the whole scene as far as the place was getting pretty loud, there's men on base and the game's on the line," Avila said. "It just seems that he's used to that."
After it was all over, after Cano had bounced what Valverde said was his pitch to Ramon Santiago and Santiago had thrown the ball safely to first, Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera kissed his right hand and pointed with gratitude to the heavens above.
For once, the baseball gods hovering above the Bronx didn't have it in for the visitors.
"It's not easy," Valverde said. "The Yankees have excellent hitting; all these guys are so great. Every time we play in New York, it's tough for everybody."
Aaron Taube is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.