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NEW YORK — All the months of preparation, all the millions of dollars, all the hopes of the New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers come down to this: Ivan Nova vs. Doug Fister for a berth in the AL championship series.
Just three months ago, one had been demoted to the minor leagues and the other was languishing with a 3-12 record for last-place Seattle.
“Obviously it’s not something I foresaw going on,” Fister said Wednesday, about 15 hours after the Yankees stretched the first-round series to the limit with a 10-1 rout in Detroit.
On the first off-day of a series interrupted by rain in New York last weekend, there was a cloudless blue sky over Yankee Stadium. But both teams decided not to work out ahead of Thursday night’s Game 5, which determines who will play defending AL champion Texas for a berth in the World Series.
“Tomorrow, I got the most important game in my life,” Nova said, later adding: “I don’t see the reason to feel pressure. It’s another game. Of course, it’s the most important game of the season now.”
Both teams originally planned to use their aces twice in the series, but those plans went down the drain when rain caused Friday’s opener to be suspended after 1½ innings and pushed back New York’s CC Sabathia and Detroit’s Justin Verlander to Game 3.
Just 24, he signed with the Yankees in 2004 and was still stuck in Class A four years later when the Yankees allowed him to be plucked away by San Diego in the winter-meeting draft. He didn’t last long with the Padres, who returned him to New York near the end of spring training in 2009.
Nova started to move up the system that year, and by 2010 he made his big league debut. Following the retirement of Andy Pettitte last winter, Nova earned the No. 4 slot in the rotation during spring training behind Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes, and by the end of the regular season moved up to second because of Burnett’s inconsistency and Hughes’ injuries. But when Hughes came off the disabled list on July 3, the Yankees sent Nova to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
They brought him back 27 days later.
“Go down and work on a few things and make it so that we can never send you down again,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi recalled telling Nova. “A lot of times you’ll hear through the grapevine a guy complaining through friends or other people. I never heard him complain. He just went about his business. You know what? He’s made it so we can’t send him down.”
Developing a slider and mixing his pitches better, Nova led major league rookies in wins with a 16-4 record and 3.70 ERA. In his postseason debut, he took over from Sabathia in the completion of Game 1 and pitched shutout ball until the ninth inning of the Yankees’ 9-3 win.
“I think we really got out of the strike zone a little more in this series than I had hoped we would,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “Hopefully, now that we’ve seen him, we’ll have a little better idea the second time around. I think that usually holds true.”
Fister gave up six runs and seven hits in 4 2-3 innings after replacing Verlander in the opener. Acquired along with reliever David Pauley from Seattle for four players on July 30, he had the poorest run support of any AL pitcher at 1.97 runs per game at the time of the trade. He went 8-1 with the Tigers down the stretch.
“Yeah, I’m pitching with a different jersey on, but still approaching the game the same way,” the 27-year-old old.
Unlike some players, and unlike Leyland, he doesn’t hold to any superstitions.
“Really, I really don’t have a routine. I go to the ballpark at a different time every day,” Fister said. “I don’t have to go in and eat my bowl of Cheerios. I don’t have to go in and run or whatever I do. It’s just kind of a flow as I go and just kind of get a feel for the day.”
While the Yankees are trying to reach the AL championship for the third straight year, the Tigers want to get back for the first time since 2006, when they won the pennant but then lost in the World Series. Detroit has not lost consecutive games since Aug. 28-29.
“Our lineup, top to bottom, it’s hard to beat us two games in a row,” Brandon Inge said.
New York has not won the final game of a series pushed to the maximum since rallying past the Boston Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. Detroit hasn’t since beating St. Louis in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series.
In a sharp gray suit and purple tie, Leyland was dressed for success.
“We got a big game with the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. It’s a great scenario. It’s great for baseball,” he said. “I wish I could tell you what’s going to happen, but I don’t know.”
Girardi, dressed more casually in a black sports shirt, knows that failure to get out of the first round would be considered a failure.
“We all understand what the goal is here, and that’s no secret,” he said. “This is why guys go to work in November and start conditioning and doing all the things, and they start hitting in December. We play to win a trophy.”
NOTES: Leyland said Don Kelly will start at 3B and Magglio Ordonez in RF. ... Girardi said closer Mariano Rivera will be available for more than an inning and that Sabathia could appear in relief.