"Just so happens Nunez put up one of the best at-bats, given the situation, I have ever seen, especially with me on the mound," Verlander said on Tuesday night following the Tigers' 2-1 decision in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, leaving the Yankees one loss away from winter.
Nunez ended a nine-pitch duel with Verlander with a solo homer to left field on a hanging curve. It proved to be the sum total of offense for the Yankees, who are faced with averting a sweep on Wednesday night behind CC Sabathia as Max Scherzer, another Detroit starter with lethal stuff, tries to send the Tigers on to the World Series.
"I was thinking, `Don't try to do too much -- just get on base,'" said Nunez, who is the first Yankees shortstop other than Jeter to go deep in a postseason game since Jim Mason in Game 3 of the 1976 World Series against the Reds. "When I hit the home run, I was thinking we could come back and win the game. But we lost."
Prior to Nunez taking him deep, Verlander had never allowed a ninth-inning homer in his career. Also, the blast marked just the third time in the right-hander's career he allowed a jack to a No. 9 hitter.
The Yankees had two men aboard when Phil Coke, formerly a Yankees reliever, struck out the dangerous Raul Ibanez to seal the deal for Verlander, who is 3-0 and has allowed two runs, both on homers, in 24 1/3 postseason innings.
"I'm on the roster, so I wasn't surprised," Nunez said when asked if manager Joe Girardi's decision to fill in for the injured Jeter at shortstop caught him by surprise. Nor was Nunez surprised that he was allowed to lead off the ninth against Verlander, who had rolled into the inning having allowed two Ichiro Suzuki singles and nothing more. Both third baseman Alex Rodriguez and switch-hitter Nick Swisher were still available.
"I've faced Verlander before," Nunez said. "I've hit him. I thought I could get the job done, so it didn't surprise me I played tonight. I just wanted to help the team win."
Nunez, added to the roster after Jeter suffered a fractured left ankle in Game 1, delivered in Jeter-like fashion in his third at-bat against Verlander.
Falling behind 0-2 in the count, Nunez fouled off four pitches and took two balls before lifting a hanging curveball over the wall in left field, ending a streak of 23 consecutive scoreless innings by the reigning AL Most Valuable Player.
Verlander was three outs away from joining an exclusive club of pitchers with back-to-back shutouts in postseason play. It most recently was accomplished by Josh Beckett with the 2003 World Series champion Marlins. The others are Christy Mathewson (a record three shutouts in the 1905 World Series), Bill Dinneen, Lew Burdette, Whitey Ford, Orel Hershiser, Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax.
"He made great pitches all game long," Nunez said, "but he was a little bit off in the top of the ninth and made a mistake. He threw me a curveball that he wanted down, and he missed up. I got a good swing and was excited. But now it's sad, because we lost."
Coke delivered the last two outs for Verlander, who departed after retiring Brett Gardner in the wake of Nunez's homer.
A two-out walk on a full count to Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano's single to left -- ending an 0-for-29 postseason slumber -- had the tying run at second before Coke struck out Ibanez on a 3-2 breaking ball to finish the job.
Nunez, a 25-year-old from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, hit .272 this season with one homer and 11 RBIs in 89 at-bats. He started Game 2 of the AL Division Series against the Orioles and was 1-for-4 with a double and run scored.
In his first two at-bats against Verlander he'd made contact, hitting a fly ball to right and grounding out.
Nunez said he hopes to be back in the lineup against Scherzer in Game 4.
"We're down 0-3," he said, "but if they can win three games in a row, we can win four in a row. We've got CC [on Wednesday], and we're going to win."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less