And while CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander weren't quite perfect in their absolutely delightful pitchers' duel Saturday, they showed why they are indeed masters of their craft.
Sabathia fought through some early control issues and escaped several big jams to pitch seven shutout innings and Alex Rodriguez homered in the seventh to break up the scoreless game in the Yankees' 2-1 victory over the Tigers at Yankee Stadium. They moved two games behind the Red Sox in the AL East.
It was the kind of game you would expect between two legitimate aces.
(OK, diatribe time -- people who say they "knew" this game was going to be a pitchers' duel, don't know jack. I'm sure they "knew" the April 25 game between Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett was going to be a pitchers' duel, too. That turned out to be a 16-11 slugfest. If we knew, we wouldn't need to watch the games! -- OK, diatribe over. Back your regularly scheduled programming).
Verlander was sharp from the start, hitting 99 mph with his fastball, mixing in his offspeed stuff effectively and preventing the Yankees from reaching second until the fourth inning.
Sabathia, however, had trouble throwing strikes early, and needed to pull a few Houdini acts to escape unscathed.
With one out in the first, Placido Polanco lofted a fly ball to left that Johnny Damon took a bad route to, allowing the ball to get over his head and roll to the wall for a "double." Miguel Cabrera followed with a walk and Sabathia was in trouble.
But Sabathia struck out Marcus Thames and got Magglio Ordonez to fly to center after falling behind 3-and-0 to escape the inning unscathed.
But again in the second, the Tigers put runners on first and second with one out when Brandon Inge walked and Gerald Laird singled. Sabathia then got Adam Everett to fly to center and worked around a wild pitch by striking out Curtis Granderson.
The game was still scoreless, but Yankee fans couldn't be feeling to comfortable. Sabathia needed 51 pitches to get through the first two innings and wasn't looking good. Sabathia said he was a bit too strong to start the game and as a result he was rushing his mechanics.
But things turned around quickly in this game. Sabathia needed just 63 pitches to get through next five innings, getting double plays to escape the third and fourth innings before recording a 1-2-3 in the fifth.
Sabathia pulled out one last magic trick in the sixth as Thames beat out an infield single with one out and went to third on Ordonez's double down the right field line. This was the key moment for Sabathia. A bad pitch and the Tigers would have a 2-0 lead behind their horse.
But Sabathia got Ryan Rayburn to lift a fly to left that was so short that even Damon would have nailed Thames at the plate. Sabathia then got Inge to pop to short and the game remained scoreless.
Meanwhile, the Yankees offense, was having little success, but did work the count against Verlander. Their discipline finally paid off in the seventh.
A-Rod led off, lofting a fly to right that had just enough to make it into the second row for a classic Yankee Stadium homer.
"I thought it was out right away when he hit it," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I actually thought it was out by a little bit more than it went out. It was closer than I thought."
Verlander settled down to get Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada, but Robinson Cano singled to left and went to third on Nick Swisher's bloop double to left.
Swisher then pulled off what might be the play of the game. Melky Cabrera followed by rolling a routine grounder to short that seemed like it would end the inning. Swisher, however, screened Everett, allowing the ball to go through his legs before moving on to third. Whatever delay that baserunning move may have caused was huge because it was just enough to allow a hustling Melky to beat the throw for an RBI single to make it 2-0.
To that point Sabathia (9-6, 3.66 ERA) had gone seven innings, allowing just five hits and three walks while striking out four. His pitch count was at 114, 66 strikes. The Tigers went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position against him.
About five weeks earlier, Sabathia was in a similar spot in Boston, leading 3-1 after seven. At that time, Girardi didn't trust his bullpen -- and frankly, he had no reason to -- and sent Sabathia back out there in the eighth. Sabathia couldn't get through the inning and the Yankees lost, 4-3.
But Giradi no longer is wary about his bullpen. And he has plenty of reasons to believe it can now get the job done.
Phil Hughes was unavailable after throwing 40 pitches Friday night. But with Phil Coke and Alfredo Aceves available, Girardi had plenty of choices.
Sabathia had done his job and lived up to his billing as an ace, able to match zeros with anyone. Girardi turned to Aceves for the eighth, and Aceves did the job, striking out two, but grooving a 90 mph fastball to Thames, who deposited it into the first row in left. Still Aceves got through the inning, handing a 2-1 lead Mariano Rivera, who got some help from a brilliant play in the hole by Derek Jeter to work a perfect ninth for his 25th save.
It was a tough loss for Verlander. He allowed two runs on seven hits and one walk in his seven inning. He struck out six and threw 72 of 109 pitches for strikes.
On most days, that would have been good enough for a win.
On this day, he needed to be perfect -- like David Cone 10 years earlier.
Runners In Scoring Position
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
Vs. Red Sox
Sunday, 2:05 p.m., YES
Edwin Jackson (7-4, 2.52) vs. Joba Chamberlain (4-2, 4.25)
After Old Timers' Day festivities, Chamberlain will look to get his season back on track. Over his last three starts, he's allowed 16 runs -- 10 earned -- and four homers in just 13-1/3 innings. This is a big start for Joba as Brian Cashman tries to make a final determination on whether he needs to go out and acquire another starter for the stretch run and playoffs.