DETROIT -- Nobody makes a two-run lead feel like a chasm like Justin Verlander. In case anybody forgot, the Yankees nearly erased it at the very end.
Five days after Verlander diverted the destiny of the upstart Oakland A's, he all but sealed the fate of the top-seeded New York Yankees, one win away from an American League Championship Series sweep after a 2-1 Tigers win in Game 3 Tuesday night. In both cases, he didn't give the hitters much of a chance.
Then came the ninth inning, which seemed to last as long as the first eight, like a reminder to the 42,970 at Comerica Park to never take a Verlander gem for granted.
The end result was the same. Thanks to Eduardo Nunez's leadoff home run in the ninth, the Yankees barely avoided being shut out in back-to-back postseason games for the first time in their illustrious history, but that was all they salvaged. And the Tigers stand on the precipice of their first World Series since 2006 -- a 4-1 loss to the Cardinals -- with a chance to claim their first World Series championship since 1984.
Verlander barely missed out on becoming the first pitcher since Orel Hershiser in 1988 to post back-to-back playoff shutouts, having thrown 132 pitches, but tied Kenny Rogers' Tigers record for postseason shutout innings at 23.
"Normally, I guess you don't take Secretariat out in the final furlong," manager Jim Leyland said, "but that was pretty much it for him."
The Tigers' rotation finally gave up an earned run for the first time in a week since Seth Smith homered off Anibal Sanchez in Game 3 of the AL Division Series. Yet in between homers, Detroit set a Major League postseason record with 37 2/3 consecutive innings by starting pitchers without an earned run.
"I think that's a great thing when you can get your entire rotation doing that," Verlander said. "And I think we're starting to click at the right time. The guys are getting healthy and starting to throw the ball the way we have been capable of all year."
It took what Leyland called the best breaking ball he has seen from Phil Coke all year, throwing it in a full count hoping that Yankees postseason hero Raul Ibanez would chase, to end it.
"I kind of felt like I might have gone a little unconscious as soon as I posted it up and let it go," Coke said.
And yet it never really felt that close. A 3-0 series lead, despite two wins that came down to the final at-bat, feels much the same. Whether or not Coke lost consciousness, Tigers starters have kept the Yankees lineup slumbering, no matter who's in it.
That lineup included neither Alex Rodriguez nor Nick Swisher, both benched by manager Joe Girardi in an effort to spark a Yankees offense whose lone runs this series had come in a disastrous ninth inning from Jose Valverde in Game 1. In came speedy Brett Gardner and veteran Eric Chavez, who killed Tigers pitching for four games here in August.
Neither of them got a hit off Verlander. For that matter, neither did anyone else except Ichiro Suzuki, who leveraged two 3-0 counts into ground-ball singles. Verlander retired the first 10 batters he faced before Ichiro's single with one out in the fourth, then retired the next eight before Ichiro's next hit.
It wasn't the overpowering form Verlander used to strike out 11 Athletics last Thursday. He struck out just three Yankees, and he had to battle out of many more three-ball counts. But the awkward swings from Yankees hitters, and the looks on their faces coming back to the dugout, told the story of Verlander's dominance.
"Verlander, who averages I think over nine strikeouts per game, struck out three guys tonight," Girardi said. "And I think our guys really tried to put some good at-bats on him, and they did."
Said Verlander: "My approach was to get ahead and be aggressive and not let anybody score. That approach kind of went out the window in the fourth. I kind of fell out of rhythm a little bit and started falling behind guys."
He had to challenge them with fastballs to hit, by his standard. And except for Ichiro, he still didn't give up a hit.
"That tells you a lot about his stuff," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said, "and it tells you how hard it is to hit."
Delmon Young's seventh career postseason home run gave Verlander a lead to protect. Yankees starter Phil Hughes left seven pitches later with a stiff back, starting the Yankees on a parade of relievers as Girardi played matchups to keep it close.
He didn't have David Phelps walk Miguel Cabrera with first base open in the fifth inning following Quintin Berry's stolen base. He paid for it with Cabrera's double over Curtis Granderson, who didn't get a good read on the ball as it soared deep to the gap in right-center.
The Yankees held Detroit there, getting an inning-ending double play from Cabrera with the bases loaded in the sixth. The way Verlander was pitching, it didn't seem to matter, even as he entered the ninth with 115 pitches.
Then came a nine-pitch duel with Nunez, starting in place of the injured Derek Jeter.
"Nunez put up one of the best at-bats, given the situation, I have ever seen, especially with me on the mound," Verlander said.
With the shutout gone, Leyland made the slow walk to the mound to tell him he had one more hitter. Gardner then worked him for eight pitches before grounding out.
They were the kind of at-bats the Yankees used to frustrate Verlander in past outings, and they kept them up after Coke retired Ichiro for the second out. Mark Teixeira battled out of a 1-2 count to get a full-count grounder through the middle past a diving Omar Infante. Robinson Cano lined a 2-2 pitch to left to end an 0-for-29 slump.
Ibanez had a 3-1 count and fouled off back-to-back fastballs, setting up Coke's leap of faith. If Ibanez doesn't offer, the bases are loaded for Swisher on deck to pinch-hit.
"It came out of my hand like [a fastball], and then it fell off the table," Coke said.