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09/29/11 8:30 PM ET
Five years later, Yankees host Tigers again
By Barry Bloom and Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
NEW YORK -- When the Yankees and Tigers last met five years ago on this particular stage, Justin Verlander was a raw rookie, Curtis Granderson was a Tiger, CC Sabathia was an Indian, Miguel Cabrera was a Marlin and Joe Girardi had just been dismissed as the Florida manager.
But most importantly right now, Verlander is still with the Tigers and Sabathia is a Yankee, creating the marquee matchup baseball fans are focusing on in Game 1 of an American League Division Series that opens on Friday night at 8:30 ET on TBS at the three-year-old newest version of Yankee Stadium.
"They're two premier pitchers on a big stage," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who managed the Tigers to a four-game win over the Yankees in the 2006 ALDS. "It doesn't get much better than that. That's what it's supposed to be. The one thing that in most cases holds true is that when you get to the postseason, you're going to see a good pitcher almost every night. And the world is going to see two of the best tomorrow. You can't ask for anything more than that."
So much has changed in five years, and that's the nature of the beast in the business of baseball. Joe Torre managed the Yankees back in 2006 and Girardi is managing the team now. Back then, the Bronx Bombers played across 161st street at the remodeled Yankee Stadium, circa 1923. The old edifice closed after the 2008 season, the only one in the last 17 that the Yankees did not make the playoffs.
The Tigers hadn't been to or won the World Series since 1984 and after defeating the Yankees, swept the A's in the AL Championship Series, ascending to the Fall Classic for the first time in 22 years. They lost in five games to the Cardinals, the team they beat in seven to win the '68 World Series.
Once again, the Yankees have home-field advantage. The '06 series turned when the Tigers came back to win Game 2, earning a split of the first two games on the road before winning the final pair at Comerica Park.
The Tigers snuck up on the Yankees back then, but neither team is lying in the weeds this time around. Both clubs ran away with their respective divisions. The Tigers won 95 and the Central by 15 games. It was Detroit's first Central title and first division title of any kind since winning the AL East in 1987. The 27-time World Series-winning Yankees won 97 games this season and the East by six.
"This is very gratifying," said Girardi, who led his team to its last World Series title by beating the Phillies in six games two years ago. "We accomplished the first goal we set out to do: Win our division and have home-field advantage. But that's only the first goal. You can't sit on that. There's a lot of work to be done. We know how tough our opponent is and it's going to be a tough series."
Girardi knows from what he speaks. The Tigers won four of the seven games between the two teams this season. Verlander's stunning 24-5 record and 2.40 ERA have made him a major center of attention, and Cabrera won the AL batting title with a .344 batting average, adding 30 homers and 105 RBIs.
The Tigers are a force to be reckoned with largely because of Verlander, but also because of the addition of Game 2 starter Doug Fister. Those two combined to go 14-0 with a 1.61 ERA in 16 outings from Aug. 16 onward. They're a dynamic combo for the best-of-five format that is the Division Series.
And they'll need to be at their best against the Yanks, who are no strangers to putting crooked numbers on the scoreboard. Plus, Sabathia is no slouch, finishing the season with a 19-8 record and 3.00 ERA.
"It's a whole new season," Leyland said. "The blood is flowing a little bit differently all of a sudden. The Yankees have a great team. You size things up and it's two real good teams going at each other in a great setting, Yankee Stadium. I'm certainly aware of the history. I can count to 27. It's great. That's what it's all about."
For the Yanks to win, Sabathia will have to shoulder the load in the rotation, as he did in '09 with the help of A.J. Burnett and veteran Andy Pettitte, who pitched in a three-man rotation throughout that postseason. This time, he has no sure thing behind him, though rookie Ivan Nova, a 16-game winner, is a solid No. 2.
And the Yankees offense has become all the more dynamic by Granderson's metamorphosis from platoon player to viable threat against right-handers and left-handers. He's always been a good player, but he's come a long, long way from his Tigers days, and now he'll be looking to take down his old team. This year, Granderson blossomed as a power hitter with 41 homers and 119 RBIs.
But first, it's Sabathia vs. Verlander. When asked what appeals to him about pitching for the Yankees this time of year, Sabathia didn't miss a beat.
"Trying to win," he said. "You sign up here to try and win championships. And you are expected to do that. I've always said, when you have a Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mariano Rivera out there, it takes a lot of pressure off any situation. You can just go out there, do your part and have a good chance of winning."