BELL BEGINS TO TOLL FOR TIGERS

NEW YORK — That music you hear from the Big Apple isn’t “New York, New York” anymore.

It’s taps.

Pennant races may not be over until they’re over, but if Saturday’s 9-4 Tigers loss didn’t decide the fate of the American League East, it summed it up rather neatly: The Red Sox won again in Boston, the Yankees exploded their napalm offense, and the Tigers, defeated, went gentle into that very bad night.

“Do you find yourself talking more or less to the team as this goes along?” someone asked manager Sparky Anderson after Detroit’s 16th loss in its last 19 games.

“I think they can see this on their own,” he said with a sarcastic grin.
“It ain’t too hard to figure out.”

No, it ain’t. This is no longer a slump, this is a habit. The Tigers, now 3 1/2 games behind Boston, have lost far more than they’ve won since the All-Star break. They don’t need to shed their losing ways as much as they need to develop some winning ones.

Good pitch, no hit. Good hit, no pitch. Walt Terrell gave up two hits all game and still lost Friday night, 3-2; the Tigers got two home runs Saturday but Jack Morris couldn’t defuse the Yankees’ bombers. Forget who plays whom in September. Forget Boston knocking off New York and New York knocking off Boston.

“We have to win 15 more games to win this thing,” Anderson said. “Anything less and we’re kidding ourselves. We need 15.”

They have 20 left.

You figure it out.

One fire leads to another

Good pitching is supposed to beat good hitting. Unless, of course, good hitting beats good pitching. That’s about as useful as that philosophy really is. Morris pitched well for six innings Saturday. Time and again he snuffed out brushfires — striking out Dave Winfield and Jack Clark with two men on; striking out Winfield again with the bases loaded; making a great fielding play on a bunt by Rafael Santana and whirling to nail Willie Randolph at third base.

And it was not enough. The Yankees got to Morris in the seventh. And from there it was a sad parade of Detroit pitchers walking back to the dugout. Mark Huismann limped in after an intentional walk and a bases-loaded single; Paul Gibson came in bloody from a sacrifice fly and an RBI single. Six runs scored for New York in that seventh inning. Six runs? Tigers fans salivate at six runs.

Good news: Fred Lynn hit a home run for Detroit. Bad news: Nobody was on base. Darrell Evans batted twice with men in scoring position; he struck out and grounded into a double play.

And all this took place while the Red Sox’s 6-0 victory over Cleveland hung on the right field scoreboard like a noose from a tree.

“Do you think one hot pitcher can turn this around?” Morris was asked as he quickly dressed after the defeat.

“Not anymore,” he said. “All you have to do is look in the mirror to see what’s happened. And it isn’t pretty.”

Let’s be painfully honest: The Tigers seem outmatched these days. Their collection of now-and-then hitters can’t keep pace with the Hendersons, Winfields, Boggses and Greenwells of the opposition. The Tigers’ pitching, minus Jeff Robinson — and with the sudden decay of Doyle Alexander and Guillermo Hernandez — is now only good, not great, and it would have to be spectacular to counter the lack of pop in the Tigers’ offense.

“We need somebody to throw a shutout real fast,” Anderson said. “We need a few games like that to slow things down.”

“Usually you can’t stop a bad slump with just one big game,” someone observed. “You have to come out of it gradually, right?”

Anderson shrugged.

“Sometimes you don’t come out of it at all.”

They should be cranky

After Saturday’s defeat, the mood was dark and somber in the Detroit clubhouse. The mark of this Tigers team was always that victory washed off it and defeat never stained. “But you lose 16 of 19,” Anderson admitted, “and you’re bound to get a little bit cranky. God, I hope so, anyhow.”

The problem with cranky is that players then try to turn things around all by themselves — get the big hit, pitch the great game. And it usually results in pressing, which usually results in defeat.

OK. It is true, critics who write off the Tigers often look foolish, because the team has a knack for avoiding the coffin. But let’s face it: Detroit is four games behind Boston in the loss column. That means Boston can lose four more times than Detroit in these final weeks. And while the optimistic will tell you Detroit was 3 1/2 back of Toronto in the last week of last season, there is a big difference:

(1) The Tigers played Toronto three times that final week; they don’t play Boston any more this season.

(2) I doubt the Toronto final-week collapse will repeat itself. That was an illness that, like Legionnaire’s disease, can be fatal, but is awfully rare.

“You know, they say if you stick around this game long enough you’ll see it all,” Anderson said, reaching for his pipe. “Well, I ain’t never seen anything like this losing streak. So maybe they’ve got a point.”

Maybe they do. Day is done. Gone the sun. On Saturday, Scott Lusader hit his first home run of the year, with Jim Walewander on base, and there was a laugh among Detroit journalists that, hey, it was last year all over again. The truth is, the Tigers right now are on their deathbeds. And last year was a very long time ago.

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