Empty feeling on a night Yanks come up empty

And so it all came down to the guy who boasted after the Tigers took a 2-games-to-1 lead in the best-of-5 American League Division Series that it would not return to New York. Unfortunately for the Yankees, Jose Valverde put his money where his big mouth was and remained spotless in save situations.

Valverde is a real three-ring-circus act as a closer constantly walking the high wire with none of the cool effectiveness of Mariano Rivera. He had Detroit in the AL Championship Series before this series was over, and the Yankees hoped they could make him pay for his putting the cart in front of the horse.

Facing the taunts of those in a record crowd of 50,960 at Yankee Stadium Thursday night, Valverde navigated himself through the ninth inning against three of the Yankees’ best hitters. The closer who converted all 49 of his save opportunities in the regular season made it 2-for-2 in the ALDS by sending Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez back to the bench, as it turned out for good in 2011.

One of the ironies in how the season ended for the Yankees in the 3-2 loss was that the fault lay more with the hitters than the pitchers. The Yankees were an offensive juggernaut for most of the season, and they did have 10 hits in Game 5, but only two came in nine at-bats with runners in scoring position, neither of which produced a run.

The Yankees stranded 11 base runners – six in scoring position – and left the bases loaded twice. The killer inning as the seventh when infield hits by Derek Jeter and Cano surrounding a single by Granderson filled the bags with one out for Rodriguez, who had a huge chance to overcome an injury-riddled regular season and atone for a dismal postseason.

Tigers reliever Joaquin Benoit, who had to remove a huge bandage on his face that covered a big cut on his left cheek, seemed distracted in trying to protect a 3-1 Detroit lead. The inning was getting away from the Tigers and moving in the Yankees’ direction.

A-Rod didn’t have to be a big hero. All he had to was make contact, get a fly ball deep enough or even a ground ball slow enough to stay out of a double play and get a runner home. Instead, he swung through a 2-2 changeup – a pretty gutty pitch when you think of it – for the second out.

The Yanks got to 3-2 when Benoit walked Mark Teixeira to force in a run, but Benoit struck out Nick Swisher, and you could feel the air suck out of the Stadium. With two out in the eighth, Brett Gardner, who had a splendid series, gave the Yankees hope with a two-out single to left off a two-strike fastball. Jeter brought the crowd to its feet with a drive that right fielder Don Kelly caught right in front of the wall.

That was as close as the Yankees got. The ninth was all Valverde, who struck out A-Rod for the final out.

Another irony is that CC Sabathia, the ace in the hole who made the first relief appearance of his major league career, gave up the run that proved the difference on a two-out single in the fifth by Victor Martinez, who used to be his catcher in Cleveland years ago. Sabathia and five relievers were used by Girardi, who felt forced to pull Ivan Nova after two innings because of stiffness in his right forearm.

Nova gave up successive home runs to Kelly, who started the game at second base, and Delmon Young (No. 3 of the ALDS) in the first inning, but it was the way the ball came out of Nova’s hand in the second inning that disturbed Girardi. Nova overcame a leadoff double that inning but was replaced by Phil Hughes at the start of the third. Sabathia’s run was the only one allowed in seven innings by Nova’s successors.

“Our pitchers threw as well as they could all year,” Girardi said. “They pitched their hearts out. They have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Pitching, particularly the rotation, was supposed to be the Yankees’ Achilles heel, but the staff was fourth in the AL in ERA and the bullpen was first. The Yankees batted a decent .260 and outscored Detroit, 28-17, in the ALDS, but their situational hitting left something to be desired — .229 with runners in scoring position. Their victories were in 9-3 and 10-1 blowouts. Their losses were in two 1-run games and one 2-run game.

Jorge Posada, who just might have played in his last game for the Yankees, was their leading hitter in the series with a .429 average. Gardner hit .412 with 5 RBI, but other than Cano (.318) no other Yankees player batted above .300. It was a particularly rough series for Rodriguez and Teixeira, who were a combined 5-for-36 (.139) with 2 extra-base hits (both doubles by Tex) and 4 RBI.

Posada could not contain his emotions after the game and excused himself from a crowd of reporters with tears covering his face. Girardi also choked up when speaking of Posada.

“What he went through this year and what he gave us in the postseason, I don’t think there’s a prouder moment I have had of Jorgie,” Girardi said. “You can go back to when he came up in ’96, how proud of him I was when he caught the perfect game [by David Wells in 1998] and all the championships that he has won. The heart that he showed during the series; that’s why Jorgie has been a great player.”

The only hit that produced a run for the Yankees in the finale was Cano’s second home run and ninth RBI of the ALDS off Tigers starter Doug Fister, who made up for his Game 1 loss with five innings of 1-run, 5-hit pitching.

Detroit manager Jim Leyland kept his promise to keep Justin Verlander out of the game and has him fresh to start Game 1 of the ALCS Saturday night at Arlington, Texas, the place the Yankees had hoped to visit and take revenge for being eliminated by the Rangers last year.

“It’s an empty feeling for everyone in that room,” Girardi said. “It hurts.”

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