Justin Verlander tosses another gem

DETROIT -- Frankly, when a manager visits the mound to talk to Justin Verlander in the ninth inning of a one-run game, the only questions really worth asking are whether candlesticks make a good wedding present or where to find a rooster to sacrifice.

Nonetheless, Jim Leyland had what he felt was a more pressing question after Verlander allowed a home run to Eduardo Nunez to cut the Tigers' lead to 2-1 and raise his pitch count to 124 with three outs left to go. So with a packed stadium of Tigers fans watching anxiously, the 67-year-old Leyland raced to the mound with the urgency of a man in desperate need of a urinal.

"I was hoping he wasn't going to take me out,'' Verlander said after the Tigers' 2-1 victory over the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALCS. "And he comes out and asks if I can get one more out for him. And I said absolutely.''

Of course he did. Asking Verlander if he can get one more out is like asking Dick Vitale if he could say a few words about Duke's basketball prospects.

His question answered, Leyland retreated back to the dugout as quickly as he had gone to the mound for what might have been the shortest managerial visit in baseball history (though we'll need Elias to confirm that). Verlander retired Brett Gardner for the first out of the inning and then Leyland brought in lefty Phil Coke to face Ichiro Suzuki, who had New York's only two hits prior to Nunez's home run.

"Normally I guess you don't take Secretariat out in the final furlong but that was pretty much it for him,'' Leyland said.

Secretariat is a good comparison because Verlander is the closest thing baseball has to Old Hoss Radbourn these days. The reigning (and possible repeat) AL Cy Young winner led the majors in pitches for the third time in the past four years, which doesn't even include his All-Star Game start this summer. He pitched at least six innings in 63 consecutive games until the streak was broken this season because rain shortened one game he pitched to just five innings.

He's been even better this October, looming as large as Randy Johnson in 2001, Orel Hershiser in 1988, Bob Gibson in the 1960s or Whitey Ford in the 1950s. Between allowing a leadoff home run to Coco Crisp in the first game of the Division Series and a ninth-inning home run to Nunez, Verlander threw 23 consecutive scoreless innings. He is 3-0 with 0.74 ERA this posteason.

And he wasn't even at his best Tuesday -- he only struck out three batters -- though outfielder Quintin Berry took exception to that notion. "If that's not his best stuff, I don't know what y'all expect him to do,'' Berry said.

Verlander retired the first nine batters he faced to fill the Twitterverse with no-hitter speculation. He lost his usual sharp command in the middle innings though, and frequently fell behind in the count 2-0 and 3-1. He said this required him to throw fastballs "almost down the middle'' which the Yankees were able to put in play. But because Verlander's stuff was still so good, they weren't able to do much more than pop up or ground out weakly. "When you throw as hard as he does, you can get away with that,'' catcher Alex Avila said.

Even though Verlander reached 99 mph on the radar gun in the ninth, the Yankees finally caught up to him with Nunez homering after a nine-pitch at-bat that brought Leyland rushing to the mound. Verlander finished with 132 pitches.

Detroit's entire rotation has been outstanding. Until the Nunez home run, Tigers starters went 30 1/3 innings without allowing a run, the most by any team in the postseason in at least 40 years.

"When we were trying to catch the White Sox we were like, 'Just get into the postseason,'" Avila said. "Because we knew we had the kind of staff that can carry a team.''

The question is whether the bullpen is up to the task. Coke was Tuesday -- just barely. He allowed two singles to put the tying run on second before striking out postseason hero Raul Ibanez to end the inning, preserve fingernails throughout Michigan and leave the Tigers one win from the World Series.

"Hopefully we can come out and shut this down,'' Verlander said. "If it doesn't happen then, reset and go out the next day.''

Indeed. Even if CC Sabathia beats the Tigers Wednesday night, they still would have three more games to get one win. And even if it the series went all the way to a Game 7, they would have Verlander ready to go again.

Hmmm. The Yankees better ask where to find a rooster.