Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander walks to the mound...

Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander walks to the mound during the fifth inning in Game 5 of baseball's American League championship series against the Texas Rangers. (Oct. 13, 2011) Credit: AP


This is why the Yankees have to overpay CC Sabathia to stick around.

This is why there's no more valuable commodity in the game than an ace. A horse. A staff leader.

And here at Comerica Park Thursday night, this is why a Rangers clubhouse attendant loaded boxes of Chandon -- unopened -- into the team truck, headed southwest.

With their season on the line and their bullpen wiped out by excessive workloads, the Tigers turned to Justin Verlander for American League Championship Series Game 5 with an unspoken, understood request: Get us back to Texas.

A few big hits and one huge break gave Verlander a sufficient cushion, and he threw a remarkable 133 pitches to lead the Tigers over the Rangers, 7-5, preventing elimination and cutting Texas' series lead to 3-2.

"This is why I work so hard in the offseason and during the season. To feel good now," Verlander said. "This is the first time all year I've hit 102 [mph].

" . . . I'll be ready to go next time, whether that's Game 7 out of the bullpen or Game 1 of the World Series. Hopefully, it's Game 1 of the World Series."

"It's not surprising to see him throw so many pitches and see him still able to pitch like that," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "The effort itself is unbelievable as far as putting in his mind to do what it takes to not only give us the best chance to win, but to save our bullpen as much as possible going into Texas."

Tigers manager Jim Leyland declared before the game that setup man Joaquin Benoit and closer Jose Valverde, both of whom pitched in Games 2 through 4 Monday through Wednesday, would not be available. "Truthfully," Leyland said, "I want to try to get through this game with Verlander and [Phil] Coke."

Verlander managed the first four innings well, throwing 61 pitches and owning a 2-1 lead. Then the Rangers tied it in the fifth, working Verlander for 35 pitches.

"The fifth inning was a disaster for us from the pitch-count standpoint," Leyland said.

It could've been worse, though. The 102-mph pitch that Verlander mentioned? Adrian Beltre nearly sent it to rightfield for a three-run homer in the fifth. It sliced just foul, and Beltre wound up making the third out with a flyout to centerfielder Austin Jackson on the warning track.

"I really felt like in the sixth and seventh, I started to find my rhythm a little bit," Verlander said, and his tally stood at 113 pitches after the sixth and 123 after the seventh. The Tigers' four-run sixth against starter C.J. Wilson alleviated the degree of difficulty on Verlander.

With Coke, the former Yankees lefthander, the only available reliever he trusted, Leyland asked Verlander to keep climbing. They made it into one out in the eighth before Coke got the call for the shaky five-out save.

"He did what they needed him to do. Stay out there," Rangers manager Ron Washington said of Verlander. "What a game."

What a series. What a postseason for Major League Baseball.

And what a reminder of what it means to have an ace. It was in this game last year, ALCS Game 5, that Sabathia kept the Yankees alive against the Rangers and Wilson, an impending free agent who also figures to interest the Yankees.

Before he opts out of his contract, Sabathia and the Yankees surely will speak about an extension beyond the four years and $92 million he's owed. Yes, he gained weight, and no, he didn't pitch well against Detroit in the playoffs. Doesn't matter. His greater track record shows who he is.

The Yankees will have to take out their checkbooks, sigh and bring back Sabathia. Because very few men can match what Verlander did here, and Sabathia happens to be one of them.

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