Detroit can finally exhale

NEW YORK -- The Detroit Tigers earned the right to meet Texas for a pennant Thursday night, and they did it the hard way. On the heels of a blowout loss to the Yankees in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, the Tigers dragged their tired behinds back to the East Coast and took on a star-laden New York lineup and all that tradition in front of more than 50,000 hostile fans in the Bronx.

It's a baseball truism that you finish off the Yankees when you get a chance, or live to regret it. As a New York columnist memorably observed way back in the '40s, "When you give the Yankees a reprieve, they get up out of the chair and electrocute the warden."

But the Tigers, to a man, expressed no sense of remorse or misgiving over their failure to close out the Yankees at Comerica Park earlier this week. Maybe it was a byproduct of winning 38 of their last 54 regular-season games, or playing for a manager, Jim Leyland, who spent so much time joking around before Game 5, he made Joe Maddon look uptight.

Heck, the Tigers weren't even fazed that Cy Young Award-winner-in-waiting Justin Verlander was unavailable, and their fate was in the hands of Seattle Mariners refugee Doug Fister.

"The way Doug has pitched, we had just as good a feeling as we would if Justin was on the mound," catcher Alex Avila said. "He's been lights-out. He's been as good as Justin has been lately."

Still, it all came down to one of those tense, classic finishes that have dominated the baseball landscape over the past three weeks. The heart of the New York order was coming up, and Detroit closer Jose Valverde jogged out of the bullpen with a TV cameraman tailing close behind and lumps rising in throats throughout the state of Michigan. This was the same Jose Valverde who saved 49 games in 49 opportunities during the regular season, but can be more harrowing than a Nancy Grace wardrobe malfunction on "Dancing with the Stars."

In this most unpredictable of postseasons, it ended in a flash. With his teammates pacing so much they were practically colliding in the dugout, Valverde set down Curtis Granderson on a fly ball to left field, Robinson Cano on a lineout to center and Alex Rodriguez on a swinging strike three to seal a 3-2 Detroit victory. All it took was 11 pitches, and the Tigers were dancing in the Yankee Stadium infield.

"Thank goodness Papa Grande didn't give us a heart attack today," outfielder Don Kelly said. "He'll surprise us every once in a while and make it easy."

Detroit may not be the mecca of the sporting world, but the city is having a pretty sweet autumn. Next week, Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and the 4-0 Lions will take on the Chicago Bears at Ford Field on "Monday Night Football." Earlier in the day, the Tigers will hold a workout at Comerica Park before facing Texas in Game 3 of the ALCS.

"The city has been great for us," Verlander said. "Hopefully we'll be great for them and win them a World Series."

The Tigers had to survive some unexpected blips and hairpin turns to eliminate the Yankees. The early rain in New York last weekend limited Verlander to one start and a one-inning cameo in the series, and the Tigers suffered their two losses by scores of 9-3 and 10-1 and hit .228 overall as a team. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit's main offensive cog, contributed a homer and two singles in Game 2, and went hitless in the other four games in the series.

But the Tigers outlasted the Yankees thanks to an array of power arms, significant contributions from unexpected sources (i.e., Don Kelly and Delmon Young) and a positive vibe that's been building in the clubhouse since the beginning of August. They passed Cleveland and moved into first place shortly after the All-Star break, and laid waste to the AL Central down the stretch to win the division by 15 games.

"We definitely deserved to be here," Avila said. "We have guys who can strike out a lot of hitters, and we have a really deep lineup. I feel like we're a very complete team. We're not gonna wow you in anything. But we're solid in all aspects of the game."

Leyland, perhaps sending a message that baseball is played best in a relaxed atmosphere, spent the hours before Game 5 cracking jokes and treating it like just another spring training game. He bragged about the new suit he bought in New York this week ("It's a humdinger," he said) and shared the news that he had received a telegram from a professor at a "prominent" university who advised him that the best route to winning Thursday's game was to start his closer, Valverde, and pitch him for five innings.

"This will explain why you think I'm so old and grumpy and messed up," Leyland told reporters.

While his New York counterpart, Joe Girardi, pitched CC Sabathia out of the bullpen in the deciding game, Leyland steadfastly resisted the temptation to use Verlander, who had exhausted his resources while throwing 120 pitches in Game 3 Monday. Leyland set himself up for some second-guessing by placing Verlander's well-being above expediency, but he never wavered.

The approach couldn't have worked out any better. Fister allowed one run in five innings before handing the ball to Max Scherzer, who recorded four outs in his first relief appearance this season.

"It's Game 5 -- the biggest game of my life with everything on the line," Scherzer said. "It didn't matter if I was starting or relieving. I was coming in with my best stuff."

Then came Joaquin Benoit, who maintained his composure even when he had to peel an enormous Band-Aid off his face at the behest of the plate umpire. Benoit grinded it out for 1 2/3 innings and 38 pitches to help the Tigers maintain a one-run lead entering the ninth.

Finally the call went out to Valverde, who caused a stir after Game 2 of the series when he guaranteed that the Tigers would win the next two games at home and avoid the inconvenience of a return trip to New York. Ultimately, Valverde's display of bravado failed to generate much traction, because the Yankees and everybody else viewed it as just the typical, garden-variety goofiness from the gregarious "Papa Grande."

Valverde credited his clean, efficient inning in the finale to the support of his mother, father and numerous other relatives who were watching the game from the Yankee Stadium stands. "It was all the energy from my family, my friends, and God, too," he said.

After A-Rod waved at the climactic 94 mph fastball and the Tigers finished spraying each other with assorted beverages in the clubhouse, they enjoyed a poignant moment of private celebration when owner Mike Ilitch came down to the clubhouse to offer his congratulations. Ilitch, 82, is widely regarded as one of baseball's best and most supportive owners, and the Tigers want badly to win him a title.

"You could just see how happy he was," general manager David Dombrowski said. "He told me, 'This is one of greatest days of my life.' You can't feel much better, when you see a guy that's been in sports for a long, long time -- you're just so happy for him. I hope we can win a couple more rounds to give him the ultimate."

Beating the Yankees at Yankee Stadium qualified as a pretty good start on the Tigers' journey through October. One round down, two to go.

"I think anybody in sports has a special feeling when comes to the New York Yankees in baseball, or the Montreal Canadiens or the Boston Celtics," Dombrowski said. "There's something extra about beating those franchises that have won all those championships. I'd be happy if we beat the Yankees anywhere, but beating them here makes it a little more special."

In the end, true to form, the Tigers couldn't resist doing it the hard way. But they got the job done. As a reward, they have a lot more baseball left to play.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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