DETROIT -- Arguably nobody in baseball takes over a game like Justin Verlander. In the biggest outing of his career, he took it back. An old foe gave him that chance.
This was the showdown that was supposed to set the tone for this American League Division Series. Four days and way too many rain showers later, Verlander didn't so much outpitch CC Sabathia as he outlasted him. And after eight innings from the potential AL MVP and a Delmon Young go-ahead homer in a 5-4 victory, the Tigers are a win away from taking this AL Division Series.
It was a display of domination from Verlander, who fired one triple-digit fastball after another while dropping in curveballs on the corners. But for one of the rare times this season, it was a show of redemption, and why this MVP candidate counts on a team behind him.
"I lost my rhythm for three batters," Verlander said, "and all of a sudden, you look up and it's a tie game. But this team has a never-say-die attitude. We did what we've done all year, which is either come from behind or have a big hit when we need it."
It's the team with a never-say-die attitude. It's Verlander's job to get the other team to say die, so to speak. With 24 wins and a pitching Triple Crown on his resume, he has the stats to create that sense. And after his second set of opening-inning struggles in four days, he eventually got the lead with help from two RBIs from Ramon Santiago.
It became another show for a sellout crowd of 43,581, until the final act got twisted a little bit looking for the perfect ending.
Starting in the third inning, Verlander retired 13 of 15 batters, seven by strikeout, four on called third strikes. He dropped a curveball on Nick Swisher to end the fourth inning, and it sparked a flurry of them. Brett Gardner saw a 98-mph fastball, then an 84-mph bender to finish off a 10-pitch fifth that might rank among the best postseason innings for a pitcher in a long time.
Once Curtis Granderson came up in the sixth, Verlander pulled a reverse, just missing with a curve out of the strike zone before pumping a 99-mph heater past him on his way to stranding Derek Jeter after a leadoff single.
Sabathia had escaped the early innings with double plays, but lasted just 5 1/3 innings. Once Verlander took the mound for the seventh with a 4-2 lead, he had seemingly won the battle, striking out Mark Teixeira and getting a first-pitch foul out from Swisher. He had an 0-2 count on Jorge Posada and the crowd on its feet when he tried for one more called strike, then another, then another.
"After two strikes," catcher Alex Avila said, "I think he kind of smelled it and realized, 'OK, we've got this,' and maybe overthrew a little bit. It just kind of created a jam there. And it happens."
Verlander tried four times to spot the strike -- two curveballs, a 101-mph fastball and a changeup. None of them worked, putting Posada on. Two pitches later, Russell Martin took a 100-mph fastball off his ribs to put the tying run on base. Verlander fell behind on a 3-0 count to Gardner, then ran the count back full.
With a payoff pitch coming, Verlander hit triple digits again. Gardner slashed it into the gap in left-center field, sending both runners around to score and sending Comerica Park into silence.
"That was an unbelievable at-bat," Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge said. "You have to tip your hat on that one. He battled and battled and against perhaps the best in the league right now. It was Verlander's best against Gardner's best. You just tip your hat to him on that one. It was a great, great at-bat."
It's tough for Verlander to get into hat-tipping mode.
"That's why that team is so dangerous," Verlander said. "Top to bottom, anybody can hurt you."
Verlander kept the Yankees from pulling ahead by getting Jeter to chase an offspeed pitch in the dirt. He had to count on his offense to take care of the rest. A first-pitch swing from Young in the bottom of the inning did it.
When he came over from Minnesota, one of the first things he said was how glad he was not to have to face Verlander anymore. To support him in a game this big with an opposite-field homer was an entirely different feeling.
"I was just going up there, trying to get a good pitch to hit," Young said. "We needed desperately to get a run, because playing a tie ballgame with the Yankees late in the game is never fun. There's some type of spark and magic that they have late in ballgames."
Young saw enough of that in Minnesota with two straight Division Series sweeps. By taking Rafael Soriano deep for his second home run of the series, he got to feel the other side of that. He also became the first Tiger since Granderson to homer twice in a Division Series.
Verlander went to 120 pitches, including five straight triple-digit fastballs to Alex Rodriguez, to carry the lead to the ninth. His 11 strikeouts were the most by a Tigers pitcher in the postseason since Joe Coleman in the 1972 ALCS. His 15 pitches at 100 mph or better is believed to be a career high.
Jose Valverde backed up his confidence from Sunday night for his first postseason save since 2007. And the Tigers turned the matchup of the series into a swing game that saw momentum swung against, then for their ace.