Though Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya talked a couple of weeks ago about what reaching the postseason would be like, they hadn't discussed what it would be like to team up and win a playoff game together. To say that Thursday's 4-3 win in Game 2 of their American League Division Series was beyond their wildest dreams would be playing up the freshmen factor the Tigers have been trying to beat. For all the questions raised about how Detroit's youngsters would react to their first taste of October baseball at Yankee Stadium, they've helped give their teammates a chance to stick around in the playoffs.
"We've got some tough kids," manager Jim Leyland said, "and today, they pitched against some tough men. ... I just hope that we convinced people that we belong in the playoffs."
Leyland is widely credited as the main reason behind Detroit's ascension from a struggling franchise to a postseason contender. His response when asked about that is usually that talent is the difference. At this point, the rookie pitchers might rank at the top of the talent list.
Verlander, one of the rare breed of starting pitchers to approach 100 mph, won 17 games this year after starting the season at the back of the rotation. Zumaya, the 21-year-old flamethrower with the triple-digit heater, finished second in the AL with 30 holds. They didn't do anything beyond their capabilities on Thursday. They just did it on a bigger stage.
That's why Zumaya's pregame words for Verlander a day earlier were simple. "I mentioned to him, 'Get me in the game. I won't mess it up,'" Zumaya said. "He did it today."
The game was originally scheduled for Wednesday night before rain pushed it back. Though much was made of the late-night decision to call the game -- and that Verlander, before being told otherwise, had warmed up prior to what was believed to be a 10 p.m. start -- the move to a day game might well have helped.
Though Verlander still had to face New York's fearsome offense in his playoff debut, the 23-year-old phenom did not have to contend with a packed house at the start of his first outing in 11 days.
The rest may have helped rekindle some extra life on his fastball, which consistently hit the upper 90s in the early innings. But for all the hype about velocity, Leyland predicted on Wednesday that his curveball would be the key.
Three of Verlander's five strikeouts were called third strikes on curveballs. Two were against Gary Sheffield, one of the quickest bats in the game to turn on fastballs. The other went against Alex Rodriguez to strand the bases loaded in the first.
"It got me out of a lot of jams tonight. In retrospect, it was a great pitch for me tonight. If it wasn't working, I don't know what would've happened."
Nor did his catcher.
"I told Jim, 'If he throws that breaking ball for a strike, he's going to be in good shape,'" Ivan Rodriguez said. "He did it. He threw a nasty pitch to A-Rod. When you have the fastball he had today, throw three or four 99s and some 98s, and mix that with a big breaking ball, it's very tough. He gave us what we wanted."
Verlander gave himself plenty of situations to need it. He walked three of the first eight batters he faced and had three 24-pitch innings, including the one accounting for all of his damage. After a Hideki Matsui one-out single in the fourth, Verlander lost Jorge Posada to a walk. He retired Robinson Cano, but left a fastball over the plate to Johnny Damon, who drove it into the upper deck in right field for a three-run homer and a 3-1 Yankees lead.
After a Derek Jeter double, Leyland, not pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, came out to talk to his ace-in-waiting.
"Look, we have to score runs anyway," Leyland said he told Verlander, "and you just have to make sure you don't lose your composure now and you're concentrating. Continue making pitches, because we're going to continue to score runs. It's not going to end like this."
Marcus Thames' leadoff double the next half-inning set up Curtis Granderson's sacrifice fly to creep Detroit back to within a run, then Carlos Guillen's sixth-inning solo homer tied it.
Though Granderson technically doesn't qualify as a rookie, he fits in with Verlander and Zumaya because he is in his first full big-league season. Though Verlander was gone by the seventh, Granderson's go-ahead triple in the seventh gave his roommate, Zumaya, a chance to hold it.
After an inning of perfect relief from Jamie Walker (1-0), Zumaya got the call with one out in the seventh, nobody on and the heart of New York's lineup coming up. Not only did he enter, he sprinted in from the bullpen.
"I really wanted to pitch in Yankee Stadium," he said. "I wanted to get the feeling of the crowd, the boos and all that. It's just the adrenaline in my body. You can't walk in from the bullpen with the adrenaline that I have. You're going to either have a little gallop or you're going to run in. I didn't want to run too hard because I might pass out."
As quickly as Zumaya came to the mound, so did his fastball approach the plate. Three of his first four pitches hit triple digits before he struck out Jeter swinging at a 98-mph heater. Zumaya was just getting started; he hit 102 mph on the Yankee Stadium radar gun before getting a Bobby Abreu groundout on a changeup.
For one rare occasion, Zumaya rarely watched the readings.
"I zoned everything out," he said. "It was just me and Pudge out there. I really wanted to go straight after guys. I wasn't going to back down from anybody."
Leading off the eighth came Sheffield, the quick bat who centered a 99-mph fastball, but lined it to center. With Sheffield out, Zumaya threw eight of his final nine pitches in triple digits, including a strikeout of Jason Giambi that registered 103 mph on ESPN's radar gun.
"I was joking when he came in after his second inning, 'That's my roomie. That's my roomie,'" Granderson said.
The Yankees weren't laughing, but they were marveling -- not just at Zumaya, but Verlander.
"They did a heckuva job," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "They really did. I mean, they pitched well against us. It's not easy coming into this ballpark as a young player and perform the way we did."
Chalk one up for the freshmen.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.