Ca-Nova Stalls Detroit

Bronx, New York, October 1, 2011 – Well, it took 26 hours and 55 minutes, four “starting” pitchers and two entrances to (and exits from) the Stadium, but the Yankees have finally taken the first game of their 2011 ALDS battle against the Tigers. The game was halted by a monsoon Friday night, and rains threatened to mess with the Saturday restart as well, but as it turned out all the fans and players had to contend with was bone-chilling cold.

Still, we were delighted with the dry conditions, and that the game was restarted on time and played to completion. Taking a contest that staff aces Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia pitched to a 1-1 tie through 1.5 innings, Doug Fister and Ivan Nova moved things right along.

The Yanks threatened to break through against Fister right off the bat, as the weird restart circumstances had the night’s play begin with the home team up in the bottom of the second. Jorge Posada singled to right, and then Russell Martin took the second 0-2 pitch he saw and drilled it into the left center field gap to set up second and third with no one out. That the home team failed to score could be blamed on Posada blundering off third and being retired on Brett Gardner’s first pitch roller to third but, given that Fister recovered to strike the next two batters out swinging, the Yanks might not have scored anyway – except that a 1-0 balk while Derek Jeter was at bat would have scored one.

Nova started well, retiring seven straight Tigers batters through a leadoff strike out of Victor Martinez to start the top of the fifth. But a full-count walk to Alex Avila and one-base hit by Ryan Raburn got him in trouble, which the Tigers tried to cash in on when Jhonny Peralta singled to center. But Curtis Granderson, who gets the most credit here because his throw covered the outfield, hit Derek Jeter at the letters and the Captain’s picture-perfect toss home nailed Avila trying to score. Sensing an opportunity slipping away, Detroit Manager Jim Leyland sent switch-hitting Wilson Betemit up to hit for Brandon Inge, but Granderson gloved his fly to left center and the threat was averted.

It was a tense time in the stands, because Fister was pitching as well as advertised, with an 8-1 mark since Detroit acquired him from Seattle. Not only did he retire 11 straight after the Martin second-inning double with five strike outs, he was also compiling unreal strike totals. The 19-4 first-pitch strikes points the way, but more impressive than that even was that for a time he was averaging four strikes for every ball.

A Curtis Granderson hard two-out single to right in the home fifth finally got the Yanks started. Robinson Cano followed with a missile the other way to left center that looked from the stands like it cleared the wall, but was ruled to be, following four umpires taking to video replay, an rbi double, and 2-1 Yankee lead. Alex Rodriguez hit Fister’s next pitch almost 400 feet, but Austin Jackson in center pulled it in on the warning track to end the inning.

Jackson’s walk on a full count starting the sixth built the tension up yet again. But Leyland, trying to create offense, sent Jackson on a 1-2 pitch to Magglio Ordonez, who whacked a three-hop base hit bid up the middle. Unfortunately (for Detroit) Cano, who had run to second base to cover, was right where he needed to be; the Tigers’ last chance ended with the ensuing 4-4-3. Delmon Young lined a shot toward the right field corner, but Nick Swisher made a fine diving catch, and the eager Yanks came to bat.

And bat they did. A Mark Teixeira double the other way toward the left field foul pole and a one-out Posada walk got it started. In what may actually have been the game’s biggest at bat, Gardner followed Martin’s fielder’s choice grounder with a single up the middle for a 4-1 lead. Jeter followed with a hit-and-run single, Granderson walked, and, with ex-Yankee southpaw Phil Coke warming, Leyland made the curious choice to bring on right-hander Al Alburquerque to pitch to Cano. It backfired, badly, even if Robbie looks to be a hitter who can’t consistently be retired by anyone. He drilled the second pitch to right for a no-doubt-about it grand slam, and an 8-1 lead.

It was over, of course. Cano would double in another run in eighth, and Detroit would tack on two late runs against Nova and Luis Ayala. But Mariano Rivera came on and struck out Betemit on three pitches, and the 9-3 win was complete.

First star, of course, goes to Cano, whose six rbi’s tied three Yankees for the most runs driven across in a postseason game, the last one Hideki Matsui, who pulled off the feat in game six of the 2009 World Series. Cano also became the first Yankee to hit a postseason grand slam since Ricky LeDee did it in 1999.

But Nova’s contribution cannot be overlooked. Sent to the minors in June with a very good fastball and curve, Ivan has surprised opponents and teammates alike that in barely a month he returned with a killer slider. He had a little trouble harnessing his new baby Saturday night, which he used this night almost too much, just mixing in an occasional fastball and curve. He only managed four of nine first-pitch strikes his first time through the order, but found the zone to all nine batters the next time through. His 59/39 strikes/balls ratio was good, and he allowed just four hits and struck out five, even if the four walks were more than what would have been ideal.

Nova did allow just four hits, although the two ninth-inning tallies went on his record. But I’m sure that did not bother Ivan much. When he allowed seven runs back in a mid-August win, he answered a reporter’s question: “I’m just here to win games.”

How refreshing. With Ca-Nova on the case, the Yanks need to win 10 more.