10/04/11 2:45 AM ET
Only guarantee from Valverde: I'll be ready
After sealing Game 3, Tigers closer good to go for Game 4
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
OK, he always kids around. He just wasn't kidding around about the future.
He wasn't calling this American League Division Series over after closing out Justin Verlander's 5-4 win in Game 3 to give the Tigers a 2-1 series lead. He wasn't guaranteeing Detroit would be celebrating Tuesday night.
"Tomorrow is tomorrow," Valverde said. "I don't know what tomorrow will bring. If the Yankees win tomorrow, we go to New York and do it over there."
All he guarantees now is that if the Tigers have a lead in the ninth, he'll be ready for it. He certainly can't guarantee it'll be easy to close out, but even in a third straight day of work, he'll take the ball.
"Who, me?" he asked back when somebody asked if he'd be available to pitch in Game 4. "See what I have? I have ice [on my shoulder], because I'll be ready tomorrow, too.
"If we win tomorrow, that's it. We need one more game, my team will be ready. If the Yankees win tomorrow, we'll go to New York."
He wanted no part of any more predictions, but give him credit. For somebody who unintentionally talked himself into a corner Sunday, he backed up his accidental bravado Monday. A tie game would have meant a second life for his remarks, a tragic fall for a perfect closer who may have beat himself with his own words.
He didn't let it happen. It took a two-out, ninth-inning showdown with postseason hero Derek Jeter to do it, but he converted his 50th save of the year.
His approach amidst all that was the same as he had with Robinson Cano a day earlier. He wasn't afraid to get beat. He didn't want to get beat on anything less than his best pitch.
"I'll be honest with you," catcher Alex Avila said. "With Valverde, it doesn't matter who's up there. He said it. I've said it. It doesn't matter who's up there. He's going to pitch to his strengths. He's going to get him out with his best stuff. And if he gets beat with his best stuff, so be it."
He actually said it again, in fact. The only difference was that he wasn't talking about a Cano home run, but one of those Jeter hits that has turned so many games in October.
"I threw him my best pitch," Valverde said. "I threw him a split-finger, my sinker, and today I think I threw a cutter, too, because Jeter is one of the best in the game. He wants a single or a double to tie the game."
Unlike Sunday, there was no key hit off Valverde to create trouble. With a one-run lead on Delmon Young's go-ahead homer in the seventh, there was no room for any. Valverde had Nick Swisher -- who hit a first-pitch fastball for a homer off him Sunday -- leading off the ninth, yet he challenged him with three high fastballs until he popped the last one back into foul territory near the Tigers' dugout.
He threw six more high fastballs to Jorge Posada, the last three of them too high after getting a 1-2 count. With the tying run on base, Russell Martin tried to jump him like Swisher did before, and nearly pulled it off. He just had too much air under the ball as it died on the right-field warning track.
"I'm glad we're playing at Comerica," right fielder Don Kelly said, "because you never know what can happen over there at Yankee Stadium. He hit it well, but I had a little bit of room out there."
Up came Brett Gardner, whose two-run double off Verlander had erased a two-run lead in the seventh. Valverde threw four fastballs up and in, and lost him after pinch-runner Eduardo Nunez stole second.
See the pattern? Out of Valverde's first 14 pitches, none were slower than 91 or harder than 95, and none were anywhere near the knees.
"Only Mariano knows how to do it. He's had too many saves, only with one pitch," Valverde said. "I have to throw sinker, cutter, split-finger. Only Mariano knows how to save a game like [that]."
His first and only splitter came on his 1-2 pitch to Jeter, and it was excruciatingly close. Three straight fastballs inside around the belt set it up. When he dropped the splitter at the knees, even Jeter seemingly crouched to get a good look as it passed through. The crowd, on the other hand, was standing on their feet.
That pitch was the only quibble Avila mentioned about home-plate umpire Gerry Davis' much-debated strike zone.
"The second to last pitch to Jeter that Valverde threw, I thought it was a strike, called a ball, and that's baseball," Avila said. "You go on to the next pitch. That's just the way it is. You can't dwell on it."
Valverde didn't. Instead, he countered it with more high heat, hitting 94 as Jeter swung late. Then he went into a celebration that rivaled any he's had lately, nearly knocking over manager Jim Leyland during postgame handshakes.
"To be a closer, it's very much pass/fail," third baseman Brandon Inge said. "You have to have thick skin to be a closer, or just not let things get to you. And that's what it is for him."
After the guarantee, it was far from a free pass.