NEW YORK -- Jose Valverde saw the large group of reporters surrounding his locker, situated in a tight corner of the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, pointed a finger at himself and flashed a perplexed look. "Are you guys waiting for me?" asked the Tigers closer. It was a playful inquiry. Valverde knew all too well that the crowd gathered around him following Saturday's 6-4, 12-inning Tigers win over the Yankees in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series was indeed waiting on him.
The microphones might as well have been replaced by microscopes. Detroit was celebrating a critical victory in this series opener -- putting the club three shy of its first World Series appearance in six years -- but the win required three extra frames due to another Valverde meltdown. The closer allowed a pair of two-run home runs in the ninth inning, erasing a four-run lead in dramatic fashion.
The Motor City faithful are familiar with the script, having witnessed it already in the postseason's previous round.Now, with stakes so high, there is a pressing question in play. Can the Tigers continue to trust Valverde in the closer's role after two incredible collapses in consecutive outings? Detroit manager Jim Leyland refused to answer such a question in the aftermath of this victory. What he was willing to say was he planned on getting together with the Tigers' staff to examine the situation. One blown save can be considered a fluke. Two ugly outings in a row might mean there is more to this issue. Three might derail Detroit's season. "We are going to discuss this as a staff," Leyland said. "Now is not the time to discuss it. We haven't really made any decisions. We really want to put our heads together and discuss it first, to be honest with you, and get together as coaching staff and talk about it. "We are certainly going to talk about it, but I don't really have any final information on it yet." Here is what is known right now. Valverde -- earning $9 million this season -- has given up seven earned runs in 2 1/3 innings this postseason. He allowed three ninth-inning runs in a wild 4-3 loss to the A's in Game 4 of the AL Division Series that pushed the Tigers to the brink of elimination. Detroit overcame that with a Game 5 win, punching its ticket to the ALCS. With a 4-0 lead in the ninth on Saturday, Valverde gave up a leadoff single to Russell Martin and -- two batters later -- he watched Ichiro Suzuki turn on an 0-1 sinker for a two-run homer. After later issuing a two-out walk to Mark Teixeira, Valverde gave up a two-run home run to Raul Ibanez, this postseason's version of Superman. It marked Ibanez's third home run in the ninth inning or later in these playoffs, a new big league record. "In this game, you never know what's going to happen," Valverde said. "All those guys did a good job against me. Ibanez. Ichiro. All those guys. There's nothing I could do. Thank God my team won." Octavio Dotel relieved Valverde with two outs in the ninth and struck out Eric Chavez to stop the bleeding. Detroit's bullpen then turned in three more scoreless innings to buy time for the offense to make a comeback, which eventually came via a two-run burst in the 12th. Dotel said Valverde's teammates still have faith in him as the stopper. "You know how this game is," Dotel said. "This game is tough. Sometimes you have your best and you can't do it. Sometimes you have nothing and you do it. This game is hard to understand sometimes. I've been in this game a long time and I still don't understand it. "We've just got to look forward for him to be ready tomorrow and forget about what happened tonight." Leyland did note, however, that there were things he "didn't really like" within Valverde's performance. The manager would not delve into specifics, only leaving room for speculation. In other situations in the past, such phrasing has indicated there could be something physically wrong. The Tigers might examine their alternatives -- Al Alburquerque, Joaquin Benoit and Dotel are each options -- or the club might ride out this storm. This marks only the second time in Valverde's career that he has allowed at least three runs in back-to-back appearances. His only other such setback came in June 2006, when he was with the D-backs. Valverde is the first reliever to give up at least three runs in consecutive appearances in the same postseason since Javier Vazquez did so with the Yankees in 2004. This is the first time since 1999 (Steve Reed, Cleveland) that a non-starter has given up at least seven earned runs in 2 1/3 innings or fewer in a postseason. What a difference a year has made for Valverde, who was perfect in 49 save opportunities during a magical 2011 display. This year, he turned in 35 saves in 40 chances with a 3.78 ERA. For what it's worth, Valverde said he wants the ball the next time a save situation arises. "I've done my job for a long time, and I think I can do it," Valverde said. "I think everybody passes through that moment. It's my time right now. It's happened two times -- in Oakland and now over here. There's nothing you can do. "It's in the past. It's over. I have to be ready for tomorrow no matter what."