"Johnny likes playing in games like this," Jeter said. "I'm sure he's feeling pretty good on the other side. We've seen him do it against us before, and we've seen him do it for us. It's really not surprising."
The Yankees had their chances before Jeter stepped to the plate in the eighth inning, but it seemed the momentum was turning when hard-throwing righty Joel Zumaya loaded the bases and allowed a run-scoring infield hit to Marcus Thames, cutting the Tigers' lead to two runs.
Brett Gardner touched former Yankees lefty Phil Coke for a weak run-scoring fielder's choice that made it a one-run game, but Coke induced a popout from Randy Winn, who was looking for a game-tying sacrifice fly.
Ryan Perry escaped the inning when Jeter hit his slicing liner, which Ordonez put away in right field with a skidding slide on the grass to bring the crowd of 34,365 to its feet on an evening paying tribute to late, great broadcaster Ernie Harwell.
"We still had chances to come back," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "We had a great opportunity in the eighth, and I wish we'd gotten a few more."
With scheduled starter Dontrelle Willis scratched due to flu-like symptoms, lefty Brad Thomas drew the fill-in start for the Tigers, serving up a two-run homer to Mark Teixeira in the third inning.
That was all the Yankees would manage until the eighth, seeing six Tigers arms, including 2 1/3 scoreless frames from winning pitcher Eddie Bonine and a perfect ninth by closer Jose Valverde, who struck out the side.
"They pitched well, they have good pitching and they have guys in the bullpen that throw pretty hard to get out of some jams," Jeter said. "We had a lot of opportunities, but they also executed their pitches."
Mitre said that he put the Yankees in an early hole, allowing two runs in the first inning and another in the second. Making his first start of the season, Mitre was filling in for lefty Andy Pettitte, who was skipped for precautionary reasons related to an inflamed left elbow.
Brennan Boesch got to Mitre for a two-run single in the first inning, and former Yankees farmhand Austin Jackson connected for a run-scoring groundout in the second to stake the Tigers to an early 3-0 advantage.
"That's pretty much what I'm supposed to do -- keep the ball down, sink the balls," Mitre said. "The first and second innings, I got my ground balls; they just found the holes."
Boesch's hit was part of a three-RBI evening, as he added a run-scoring triple in the seventh off Boone Logan. Boesch's first-inning hit scored Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera, the latter of whom reached on a hit that included an Alex Rodriguez throwing error.
"It could have gone either way, you know?" Mitre said. "He dove and made a good play. If he makes a good throw, that's the end of the inning. A few of the ground balls found holes."
Girardi complimented Mitre's ability to get ground-ball outs in his five-hit outing, but the last pitch he threw left the ballpark. That came in the fifth inning off the bat of Damon, who hit a drive to right field that extended the Tigers' lead to 4-2.
"It feels good, especially when the run can help you win a game," Damon said. "I'm just proud of our guys. ... We know we're good, but we want to be great. Today was a good step. There's no quit in that team, as we all know. They can come back from any deficit."
The Yankees had come to Detroit looking forward to shaking hands and laughs with Damon, who hoped to make stops at all the bases to exchange pleasantries with his former teammates. They left the stadium with a reminder that, at any time, Damon is also still able to touch 'em all.
"Johnny's been a great hitter for a long time," Girardi said. "He's put up big numbers. We've seen it on our side, and we've seen it against us."