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ALCS Gm 3: Yankees face Verlander in Game 3

DETROIT -- The Tigers, leading the Yankees, 2-0, and going for a stranglehold on the American League Championship Series, have the advanced weaponry of Justin Verlander aligned for Game 3 on Tuesday night at Comerica Park.

There is only one Verlander, and the man taking the ball for the Yankees, Phil Hughes, understands that. Hughes won't face Verlander directly, with a bat in his hands, so the best he can do is keep the Yankees in the game while the offense tries to come alive after producing just four runs -- all in one inning -- in the two games at Yankee Stadium.

"The game plan that we have going into it is to shut down the team as best we can," Hughes said. "So that doesn't change. I'm trying to throw up as many zeros as I can."

That doesn't change, whether it's the reigning AL Most Valuable Player or a guy with a 5.45 ERA working for the other side.

"I try to go out there, like I said, and throw the best game I can and trust that our guys are going to score some runs," Hughes said. "Obviously, Verlander is a great pitcher. But he is human, and we know we can score off him. I just have to do a better job than he does."

It happened on June 3, when Hughes and the Yankees beat Verlander, 5-1. Hughes went the distance, his four-hitter blemished only by Prince Fielder's home run, as Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez went deep against Verlander.

Jeter, moving around on crutches with a fractured left ankle, will be cheering his team from the couch the rest of the series. But A-Rod is around, and he showed signs late in Game 2 with a pair of good at-bats that he could be emerging from his postseason funk. He has had company. Robinson Cano, hitless in his past 26 at-bats this postseason, is due to erupt, and Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher also have struggled mightily to make contact and contribute.

Verlander, who is coming off one of the dominant performances of his career in shutting out the Athletics to clinch the AL Division Series in Oakland, relishes the latest challenge.

"You always want the ball in this situation," he said.

Verlander hasn't lost a night game at home this season. He is in the zone, with victories in his past six outings. He has allowed three earned runs in those six games, holding the opposition to one hit in 29 opportunities with runners in scoring position.

The Tigers clearly like their chances of finishing the job with their ace in Game 3, followed by Max Scherzer vs. CC Sabathia in Game 4.

"The thing about our staff is we've got guys who can put up strikeouts, which is big in the postseason," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "In the last month, they've pitched phenomenal. We needed them to do that to catch the White Sox [and win the AL Central]."

The Yankees were 4-3 at Comerica this season, outscoring the Tigers, 40-33. Its deeper outfield dimensions, Mark Teixeira suggested, should encourage Yankees hitters to stay back and explore the middle of the field rather than trying to exploit the inviting contours of Yankee Stadium.

"There's a lot of pressure on you at home," said Teixeira, a student of the game who beamed with the mention of 1996 when the Yankees won the World Series, history he would love to repeat. "Sometimes it's good to go out on the road. Guys can relax, not feel as much pressure. You're all together, 25 guys and the staff, and you come together as a team in a hostile environment.

"Detroit is going to be rocking, going crazy. We've got a chance to do something special there. The energy in the stadium is great. When they're booing you on the road, it doesn't bother you; you expect it. But when it happens at home, a guy might take it personally.

"This is a weird game. When you're hot, it's fun. When you're cold, it stinks."

Starving for offense, the Yankees know they can't try to do it individually. It has to be a group effort. Manager Joe Girardi is stressing in-game adjustments, understanding how you're being pitched and responding with a fresh approach.

"We know they are not going to put it on a tee for us," Girardi said. "We are more than capable of scoring runs and have done it a number of times this year. We have to make adjustments."

The offense has gone into hibernation, averaging 2.86 runs per game with a .205 team batting average this postseason. A-Rod believes it's time to start focusing on the little things -- capitalizing on every opportunity by advancing runners, going the other way and putting the ball in play. A preponderance of strikeouts is evidence of an offense that is pressing to go deep too frequently.

Upbeat and optimistic heading to Detroit, Rodriguez identified his team's need to stay in the strike zone against a Tigers rotation that has been lights out.

"Stay positive, with a lot of passion," he said, "and we'll get back in it."

In his final two at-bats in Game 2, A-Rod lashed line drives for an out to left and a single to center. Good signs.

Rodriguez enters Game 3 hitting .308 and slugging .769 in the Tigers' yard. He's 4-for-6 with two homers and three RBIs against Verlander.

Scenery changes have been known to lift teams. As recently as a week ago, the Giants traveled to Cincinnati, down 2-0 in their National League Division Series against the Reds, and swept three games to win the series.

Jeter, a .361 career hitter against Verlander, will be missed, obviously. But Jayson Nix handled shortstop impeccably in Game 2 and narrowly missed a two-run homer in his first at-bat against Anibal Sanchez. His deep drive to left settled in Quintin Berry's glove on the warning track.

If Eduardo Nunez gets the call at shortstop, he's also capable of producing, as he's 1-for-3 against Verlander with a double and RBI.

History argues persuasively for the Tigers. Only three times in 23 previous best-of-seven LCS has a team down 2-0 rallied to win a series. The 1985 Royals (vs. the Blue Jays), the '85 Cardinals (vs. the Dodgers) and the 2004 Red Sox made it happen. Boston further complicated things by falling down 3-0 to New York.

The Yankees are 4-4 in series after going down 0-2. The Tigers have completed sweeps both times they've led 2-0 in series, against the A's in the 2006 ALCS and against the Royals in a best-of-five ALCS in 1984, their most recent championship season.

On the heels of brilliant starts by Doug Fister and Sanchez comes Verlander, the Tigers' new Jack Morris.

"If you want to win a World Series," Teixeira said, "you've got to beat the best -- and he's the best right now."

Verlander has the same 5-4 career record against New York that Hughes holds against the Tigers. Verlander's ERA in those 13 starts is 3.74, compared to Hughes' 4.22 in 10 games and eight starts.

Verlander was 1-1 with a 3.10 ERA in three outings against the Yankees this year. Hughes was 1-1 with a 3.38 ERA against the Tigers in two starts.

Detroit manager Jim Leyland, having seen closer Jose Valverde struggle mightily, is going with matchups and a committee at the back end of the bullpen. Verlander plans to make it irrelevant by going nine.

Girardi just hopes to get a lead to hand the ball to Rafael Soriano for the first time.

"It's definitely not an ideal situation," A-Rod said. "I'd rather be up 2-0 and facing a Triple-A pitcher. A lot of people have counted us out. We thrive on coming back."

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