DETROIT — In the end, the New York Yankees called on Mariano Rivera for grins and giggles.
The Yanks were up on the Tigers by seven runs going to the bottom of the ninth and that’s not exactly a save situation.
But the legendary closer needed some work.
So Rivera, who was honored before the game — and how often does a Yankee get a standing ovation at Comerica Park? — stepped inside the white lines for the first time in the three-game series and got the final three outs in a 7-0 New York win.
The righty gave up a couple hits, but stranded two and in the process saddled the Tigers with their first shutout in 235 regular-season games.
“You lose, you lose,” said Detroit manager Jim Leyland. “The rest of that stuff doesn’t make much difference.”
Still, the Tigers, with the Fab Five at the top of their order, are not supposed to be squelched.
The Yankees, meanwhile, are missing some key parts and the lineup right now is patchwork with castoffs and normally dependable players like Robinson Cano and Ichiro Suzuki who seem unable to hit the ball out of their own shadows.
New York may not contend for a division title, it may not be a playoff-caliber team.
The Yankees should not be epically bad, as some are predicting, for one simple reason — pitching.
When a team can trot lefties like CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte to the mound twice in every five games, turn it over to David Robertson in the eighth, and seal the deal with Rivera, when needed, there will not be many if any of the long losing streaks that define really lousy teams.
It was Sabathia’s turn Sunday and he was superb for seven innings, scattering a mere four singles and out-dueling Tigers ace Justin Verlander.
Verlander was off the tracks early and paid dearly for a couple mistakes, but he kept Detroit in the game before the bullpen imploded.
There aren’t many places the Yankees can go these days for runs, but Francisco Cervelli and Jayson Nix, two right-handed hitters in the bottom third of the order, both turned on Verlander fastballs and produced a run-scoring double and a two-run home run, respectively, in the top of the second inning.
“Sometimes the guys you don’t expect to hurt you are the ones who do,” Leyland said. “If [Verlander] could have one pitch back, the one to Nix, maybe it’s different. He settled down and gave us a chance but we couldn’t do much with CC.”
Beyond that, give or take the Tigers’ bullpen issues, there isn’t much to analyze in a game that seemed bloodless or, as Leyland admitted, “a little blah” for all 3 hours, 21 minutes.
The biggest cheer was for Rivera during a pregame salute. He has announced he will retire after the season and, believe it or not, the Yankees will not return to Detroit again in 2013.
So Leyland presented him with a display case that included dirt from the mounds at Comerica, where Rivera never blew a save in 23 chances, and the old Tiger Stadium.
Baseball’s all-time saves leader got another nice ovation upon entering the game. Maybe it was appreciation or maybe it was envy. After watching Phil Coke in the eighth inning and Octavio Dotel in the ninth, Tigers’ fans can only fret about the team’s bullpen in general and a closer in particular.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.