by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

It was somewhere in the middle of the eighth inning Friday night, with the wind whipping cold and blowing dangerously out to right, when every Tiger fan inside this sold-out Tiger Stadium closed his eyes and prayed.

“The bullpen?” the fans whispered. “Please. Not the bullpen. Anything but the bullpen.”

Well. Can you blame them? Or don’t you remember last weekend in Toronto — when the bullpen was the grenade the Tigers fell on time and time again? Here we were, biggest game of the season (to date), the score a mere 4-3 Tigers, and Doyle Alexander was leaving with two men on and nobody out.

“Where’s he going?” the fans seemed to ask. “He can’t leave. He never leaves. Leaving?”

Leaving. He had pitched well. He had never lost a game in a Detroit uniform. He was being relieved. The effect was like watching the long tall stranger in a Clint Eastwood movie ride out of town with one bad guy left to shoot.

“But . . . but . . . ” whispered the fans.

And out came rookie Mike Henneman.

And this is what he did. He got George Bell — big, mean, tough, MVP-candidate George Bell — to ground to third for a forceout. One away. Next came Juan Beniquez; the same Juan Beniquez who last Saturday murdered the Tigers with a pinch-hit ninth-inning triple in Exhibition Stadium. Were we still in Toronto, surely he would have sent one over the fence. But as a wise man once said, “Toronto is not Detroit.” I’m not sure who said it, actually. Somebody must have said it.

And, poof! Henneman got Beniquez to ground to short, a blessing in the Tiger infield, and it went Trammell-Whitaker- Evans, commonly known as 6-4-3, heretofore known as end of rally, the fourth of five Detroit double plays this beautifully frigid evening.

And, ta-da!

Tigers win.

It’s all even now.

Hey. We weren’t really worried, right?

Tigers win? Yes. They are tied for first place. What was once a season is now a weekend: today, Sunday, maybe Monday. Best two-of-three. You can take the blackboard that is April through September and wash it clean. “What’s the best way to put it?” mused Bill Madlock in the Tigers’ clubhouse afterward.
“We’re in the best spot we can be in, given everything that happened.”

Yeah. What he said.

And how they did it! Here was a game that was on the lips of all in this city from the time they awoke Friday morning. Gone suddenly was the lethargy that came with the two-loss series against Baltimore. Forget Baltimore. Forget Milwaukee. Turn the lights out on the the rest of baseball until the playoffs. This was Friday Night At The Only Game That Mattered.

And here is what transpired: a well-pitched effort by a less- than-sizzling Alexander; a storybook home run by a redheaded rookie named Scott Lusader; and 6-4-3. And 1-4-3. And 1-6-3. Double-double-play-play. Detroit is in love with its hyphens.

“You know I’ve seen Trammell and Whitaker make I don’t know how many of those,” said a grinning Sparky Anderson afterward, “and I still didn’t think they could turn that one in the fifth. It just looked too tough.”

Tough? Try a ground ball to the right of second base that Trammell chased down, then flipped against the grain to Whitaker, who somehow wheeled it to first in time to double up Rance Mulliniks. “Timing,” said Trammell, with a shrug. “We’ve been doing it for 10 years now. There just always hasn’t been so many people around.”

The last of the Tigers’ five double plays ended the game — a Henneman-to-Trammell-to-Evans number that brought the sellout crowd to its feet in a blast of a cold-air cheer. “It’s so different to be pitching here,” said Henneman, who had his troubles last weekend. “You gotta thrive on these situations (like coming in with two on and none out in the eighth). But it’s a lot easier doing it at home.”

“What’s gonna happen now?” a reporter interrupted.

“The Tigers are gonna win it,” he said, without hesitation. “Jack Morris is gonna win tomorrow, and Frank Tanana is gonna win Sunday. That’s it.”

See what a few successful innings does to your confidence? Wait. Hold it. A word about Scott Lusader, before he leaves the stage. The Tigers’ right fielder, the youngest guy on their team, played as if it were the last game of his season, and it probably was. He may not appear again in this Detroit-Toronto series — a victim of Sparky Anderson’s platoon system — and he’s not permitted to take part in any playoffs, because he joined the team after the Sept. 1 deadline. But Friday night, he had a moment. And he made it sing. All you short guys with red hair, stand up and holler.

“Did you ever dream about this?” Lusader was asked about his first major league homer, a two-run shot in the second inning that just cleared the left-field fence and cut an imposing 3-0 Toronto lead to 3-2. “Did you dream about this moment as a kid?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said.

“How did it compare?”

“Well, in my dreams, it always reaches the upper deck.”

Hey. Can’t have everything.

Lusader came pretty close. In addition to that home run — which did as much for Tiger spirit as Tiger score — he made a gorgeous play on a dropping Nelson Liriano liner, snagged it, ended the seventh inning.

“Weren’t you nervous out there, being a rookie?” he was asked.

“I was nervous the first week I came up,” he said. “After that, nah.

“Besides, when you grow up short and with red hair you are used to adversity.”

Is that a winning quote, or what?

So it’s all even now. Alexander earned the win (he is a perfect 9-0 as a Tiger) and Detroit fans got what they wanted: a clean slate. Best two of three. All at home. They got it in a surprising fashion — a rookie reliever, a rookie right fielder, a string of double plays — but then, considering this team, it’s not surprising at all. Say what you will about slips and squibs along the way: This is a team that simply refuses to believe a season is over until the final day.

Read it and cheer.

Tigers 4, Blue Jays 3.

Uh, all you fans in the bleachers can open your eyes now.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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