DETROIT — Tigers fans have a lot of security blankets. There is Justin Verlander toeing the rubber and Miguel Cabrera digging in with the winning run in scoring position.
Perhaps, though, there is nothing quite as secure as what happens in mid-ninth inning at Comerica Park when the bullpen gate swings open, the music is cued, and Jose Valverde stops, looks, hops, and then sprints to the mound.
It's not exactly Ricky Vaughn with the song Wild Thing blasting, but this real-life version is still chaotic. And it always seems like the chaos follows ‘Papa Grande,' as he is affectionately called, right to the final strike of the final out, which he always gets. And when he does, well, nobody on Dancing With The Stars has anything on Valverde's fist-pumpin', leg-kickin', body-twirlin', back-crackin' boogie.
Todd Jones certainly couldn't pull it off. The one-time Detroit closer, the team's career leader in saves, was on hand to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before last night's Game 4 of the ALDS. He wore a Valverde jersey and after delivering the pitch took a shot at doing the dance. The crowd loved it. Valverde watched from the dugout and was in stitches.
Unfortunately for the Tigers and 43,000-plus fans who came prepared to celebrate another Valverde save and a series-clinching win, Jones' appearance marked the only time a jersey with that name on it made it to the Comerica mound last night.
The Yankees forced a Game 5, scheduled for tomorrow in the Bronx, as Tiger starter Rick Porcello faltered early and the bullpen was bombed late. New York had a six-run eighth — one crossing the plate on a balk and another on a wild pitch — and rolled 10-1.
The Tigers had no use for a save, just a tourniquet, last night.
Valverde was a perfect 49-for-49 in saves during the regular season, erasing Jones' single-season club record of 42 saves.
"He's a fierce competitor and he's had just an amazing year," Jones said. "People don't really realize how hard 50 out of 50 saves is. He's an amazing closer. We're both right-handed, but I think after that the comparisons kind of go away."
The 50 out of 50 reference was to Valverde's save Monday night in Game 3 of this series. It was pretty typical for the emotional, demonstrative, deliberate hurler from the Dominican Republic. One night after needing 35 pitches to nail down a Detroit win in a non-save situation at Yankee Stadium, Valverde walked two New York batters before ending it with a swinging strike three on Derek Jeter.
"He has some clean innings now and then and every now and then he keeps you on the edge of your seat," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "He does get into problems, but you can't do much better than what he's done up to this point."
Verlander went the first eight innings on Monday and won for the 25th time this season. It was the 16th time that Valverde saved one of his wins.
"Obviously, your heart is racing a bit," Verlander said. "I'm not necessarily saying he's gotten in trouble all year. There have been a couple of hairy situations. He always finds a way to get it done."
Not getting to the mound last night, though, meant Valverde couldn't do anything to nail down his prediction.
In an interview after the Tigers' Game 2 win in New York, Papa Grande promised the series would end in Detroit.
Instead, it's back to Yankee Stadium. The difference on Thursday will likely come down to who is last to leave the mound — a still-perfect Valverde or the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time.
A battle of security blankets.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.
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