He was on his knees, sunk in the dirt, the weight of the Tigers’ season seemingly on his shoulders. What had he done? Darrell Evans? The veteran, the leader, the symbol of the Tigers’ experience . . . had been picked off at third base, caught in a mistake, gunned down by an alert catcher and a deadly accurate throw? Out?

Out.

“That doesn’t happen,” Tigers fans seemed to whisper. “It just doesn’t happen.”

It happened. Tigers lose. They are one game from elimination in these American League playoffs. Not because of that one play. Not because of Evans’ failed belly-flop back to third that left him only dirty, sorry, and out — and deflated a potential rally. Uh-uh. Not because of that one play.

But because of what it symbolized — which is what had been happening all night.

“The Tigers don’t do that,” whispered the fans.

They did. All the things they’re not supposed to do. All the things they hadn’t done in building the best record in baseball. They blew scoring chances. Their big hitters were not big at all. Men were left on base like forgotten car keys. The staring pitching did not hold.

And their opponents are playing like the favorites.

Who are these guys anyway? The Minnesota Twins? Or some ghosts from the past in young, fresh-faced bodies? They have outplayed, outhit and outpitched the Tigers in three of four games, and they lead this unexpected series, 3-1.

“Not supposed to happen,” the fans repeated, shaking their heads.

It happened.

Shock,” said Evans quietly into an army of microphones. The game was over, the game was lost, 5-3, and what happened in that sixth inning was merely one of a number of bad occurrences. Evans had been on third base, Dave Bergman on second, Lou Whitaker at the plate. One out, Tigers trailing by a run. On the first pitch, Evans tried to get aggressive. He leaned just a tad too much. And suddenly here was catcher Tim Laudner up and firing toward third baseman Gary Gaetti — a called play, Gaetti would admit — and Evans, too late, too late, was tagged out.

“Shock is mostly what I felt. You don’t figure it’s gonna happen . . . It’s a mistake. I wish I could have it back. You just want to dig a hole and bury yourself.”

It did not lose the game. But ultimately, the game was lost. And the feeling now is like spotting an “E” on your gas tank with 100 miles of highway to go. Three straight? Is that really the only way the Tigers can stay alive in this once-magical season? Three straight? What happened to all the World Series talk? What happened to the best record in baseball?

This is what happened: Somebody began a new season. And all the old stuff went out the window. Suddenly, the Tigers are no longer chock full of dominant starting pitchers. Suddenly, they have no big bats in the No. 3 and 4 spots.
“We’re just not doing what we normally do,” said cleanup hitter Alan Trammell, 3-for- 15 in this series. “I don’t know why. I wish I did. I’d like to show the country what kind of team we really are.”

So far, they have not. And the Twins? Those terrible road- playing Twins? Those we-don’t-really-have-pitching Twins? Too young, too inexperienced, not ready for prime-time Twins?

They have shown exactly the opposite.

Here, in Tiger Stadium, was Kirby Puckett cracking a solo home run off Frank Tanana. Here was Greg Gagne, the No. 8 hitter, doing the same. Here was reliever Juan Berenguer, the hate raining down on him from his former fans, shutting down the Tigers for 2 2/3 innings. “I don’t think there’s any doubt they’ve played better than us,” said Kirk Gibson, who struck out in the bottom of the ninth for the final out. “And as for our situation, I think it’s pretty bleepin’ obvious.”

A moment here for Evans. He did not deserve this. He has played so well all year, led the team by example, proven those wrong who said he was too old
(40) to do what he used to. How terrible must he feel this morning. How hard was that walk from third base back to the dugout, his uniform covered in dirt from the failed slide, his face the picture of frustration — with himself, with the situation, with everything. “Look at him over there,” said Trammell in the clubhouse, motioning to the crowd of reporters around his teammate.
“He’s sitting there, taking it. I can’t say enough about him. He’s been our leader all year.”

Unfair. He deserves better. But this is a game, not a courtroom. You get what you get.

Yes, there were plenty of other failed moments. The very next inning, Trammell — the Tigers’ MVP candidate — grounded into a double play with one on and nobody out. Earlier, in the fifth, Larry Herndon had lined out on a 3-2 picth with the bases jammed. And back in the first, Evans, once again, had the bases loaded and lined out.

The whole game was like one of those dreams where you are running in slow motion, where you can see your goal, but you just can’t reach it. Before it began, Sparky Anderson had admitted losing this would “be almost impossible” to overcome. Correct. Not only for the difficulty of three straight victories, but because two of them must come at the Metrodome, where, if you wear a foreign uniform, just breathing is hard enough. “What choice do we have now?” asked Trammell. “We have to win three straight. It’s been done (1985 by Kansas City, in the playoffs over Toronto).”

And it must happen again, if the Detroit baseball season is to continue. Didn’t the Tigers have the best record in baseball? Didn’t Minnesota have the worst record of any division winner? Yes. Yes. And what does it matter? This is a seven-game season now, not 162. The stage has changed; and so, apparently, have the players.

Why has it happened?

It has happened because Detroit’s starting pitchers, supposedly their forte, have been average or less against Minnesota batters — Doyle Alexnader, Jack morris, Walt Terrell and Frank Tanana, all unable to last a game or earn a victory.

It has happened because every time it looks as if the Tigers should score in bunches, they score in drops. “And when we score,” admitted Chet Lemon,
“they seem to come right back and score themselves.”

It has happened because of bad things at bad times, and because of aggressive, no-fear play by the Twins. And in the end, all that counts is that it has happened. And the Tigers now need a miracle, three times, to get out of it.

How sad a scene Sunday night: Evans, caught, out, nothing he can do about it, sunk in that dirt around third base with his head lowered to his chest, the crowd too stunned to react. It was one play, not the only play, but a symbolic play, symbolic of the feelings, the situation, everything.

If this were Hollywood, it would simply be part of a great script, the moment for a classic turnaround, a Rocky-like comeback, a fitting end for a season that has been like a mountain climb in your socks.

But this is not Hollywood. This is Detroit. Three games more, at best, and the Tigers must win them all. If that sounds almost impossible, it’s because it is.

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