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10/05/11 2:38 AM ET

Tigers robbed of chance to break game open

Diving catch by Granderson takes away potential big inning

DETROIT -- Don Kelly and Curtis Granderson were drafted one year apart by the same organization. They were teammates at three different levels of the Tigers' farm system, from Class A Lakeland in 2003 all the way to Triple-A Toledo in '05. They played together in Detroit in the heat of the '09 American League Central race and were in the outfield together at the Metrodome the night the Twins beat the Tigers in a tiebreaker game.

Their personalities are too good for them not to be friends. But on Tuesday, Granderson was a heartbreaker for Kelly. That didn't mean Granderson couldn't kid him a little bit after his diving grab took away a golden opportunity for the Tigers to seize control against the Yankees in the first inning of Game 4 of the AL Division Series.

"Don Kelly came up to me later in the game," Granderson said after the Yankees beat the Tigers, 10-1. "He goes, 'How did you do it?' I said, 'You hit it that hard. If you didn't hit it that hard, it would have fallen in and been a base hit.'"

It would have been at least three runs for Granderson's old team. It might have been an inside-the-park grand slam the way Tigers manager Jim Leyland saw it. Either way, it would have made Kelly a postseason hero, and Rick Porcello a pitcher with a sizable lead to protect.

Instead, both will head to New York, where on Thursday the Tigers will face the Yankees in the decisive Game 5 at 8 p.m. ET on TBS.

Leyland started Kelly in right field Tuesday over Magglio Ordonez because he wanted to inject some speed into the lineup to try to manufacture some offense against the effectively wild A.J. Burnett. Leyland wasn't figuring that Kelly would give the Tigers one the hardest-hit balls of the night.

But with the bases loaded and a 1-0 count, Burnett had to challenge Kelly, who wasn't expecting that kind of hit.

"There's really not much you can do as a hitter," Kelly said afterwards. "You just go up there and put a good swing on the ball. I mean, I don't think I really could've hit it any better than I did."

It wasn't just how solidly he hit it, Kelly said, but the backspin. That's what he figured sent it carrying as much as it did.

"I thought it had a chance," Kelly said.

When Granderson was an All-Star center fielder in Detroit, his one defensive shortcoming was getting reads on line drives hit directly at him. Most of the time, it would happen in day games, when the light coming in from the main concourse would stand out. With an 8:37 p.m. ET start time, that was far from the case Tuesday, but with the bright lights and a sea of fans waving white rally towels, it wouldn't be hard to get confused.

"Right away, I thought he hit it right to me," Granderson said. "I took a step in and froze. It started to get some air. At least from my perspective, it kind of went up. I was like, 'Oh, man.'"

So were the Tigers in the dugout.

"I thought it was going to get over his head," Brandon Inge said.

Inge has seen Granderson make plenty of highlight catches over the years, and many after not getting an immediate read on the ball. This time, Inge felt that freezing helped Granderson.

"He didn't break quite long enough," Inge said. "It was actually a pretty good read, because off the bat, the ball's coming in, so your natural reaction is to want to go in and get it. And I saw him break a little bit, but he held his ground and then he went back. He did a good job on it.

"That's not an easy play to read. That's one of the hardest ones."

Still, Granderson had to make the catch.

"I ended up having to leave my feet, which I didn't want," Granderson said. "I ended up reeling it in."

It was a tumbling catch that left a sellout crowd at Comerica Park in stunned silence as Tigers baserunners stood for a second in amazement.

"It's funny," Leyland said, "Sometimes, you pick a key out in the game, and I think the key out in the game happened in the very first inning."

It marked the second time this series that the Yankees prevented the Tigers from breaking a game open with the bases loaded. Miguel Cabrera's double play a night earlier scored one run, but it prevented more when paired with a Victor Martinez inning-ending groundout.

Then, the Tigers couldn't get the hits they needed from two of the league's best hitters with runners in scoring position, but it didn't cost them. This time, it would have been a game-breaker from an unexpected source.

"I mean, obviously, it would be nice to get up early in the first inning," Kelly said. "But they're an offensive ballclub. Ricky threw the ball really well, I thought. He had great stuff tonight, but you never know. You just have to keep on adding runs. I mean, it's not like if Curtis doesn't make that catch, we win the ballgame. There's still nine innings to play. But it's a big play by him."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.