MINNEAPOLIS — And then, the nightmare walked out of the bullpen. The score was tied, 5-5, the bases full of Minnesota Twins, the Metrodome simply insane, gone, roaring with so much noise it bounced off the bubble roof and back onto the heads of 53,269 screaming fans. Intimidating? A man of wood might have been rattled. And Willie Hernandez, flesh and blood, hasn’t needed any help getting rattled lately.

As he walked to the mound with one out in the eighth Wednesday night, you could almost hear the squeals of delight among the sellout crowd here. Perhaps the fans knew that Hernandez in crucial situations lately has been about effective for the Tigers as pulling down their pants.

And sad to report, he did not disappoint.

First he surrendered a single to pinch hitter Don Baylor, a sharp drive to left that scored a run. Twins 6, Tigers 5. Then, pitching to Tom Brunansky, he fell behind in the count, 3-1. And then, goodby. A line drive to left center that scooted all the way to the wall. The Twins were circling the bases, the game was being lost, and no doubt TV sets all over the Detroit area were being abused in ways unfair even to major appliances.

“Thanks, Willie,” the Tigers fans said.

Well. Maybe they didn’t use those words.

Twins take Round 1. They caught the Tigers in the one area in which they are truly soft: relief pitching. Let it be noted that it was not just Hernandez who blew this 8-5 game in the opener of the American League playoffs. Mike Henneman was the first to relieve Doyle Alexander in that eighth inning, and Henneman gave up two walks: one intentional to Kent Hrbek, the other accidental to Gary Gaetti. “And don’t forget, we had our chances the inning before,” Alexander would add, referring to a bases-loaded, no-out seventh that produced just one run.

All that is true. But this morning, Tigers fans are likely seeing one scene over and over, before punching the walls: that of Hernandez surrendering bases-loaded hits that scored the winning runs. Not too long ago in Toronto, he gave the same kind of performance.

And to think, we had almost forgotten it.

“I still have my confidence,” Hernandez repeated over and over, sitting at a small table in the middle of the Tigers’ clubhouse. “I’m struggling. . . . But if I go out there scared, I might as well go home.”

Oooh. Talk about a set-up line.

OK. Let’s be fair-minded for a minute here. That seventh inning should have put this thing away. The Tigers opened with three singles, and wound up with just one run. Tom Brookens struck out. Lou Whitaker grounded into a fielder’s choice. Bill Madlock bounced to the pitcher. You can’t miss chances like that and expect to win — especially in a visitors’ house of horrors like the Metrodome.

And yet the Tigers had a 5-4 lead entering that fateful bottom of the eighth. You can second-guess what should have happened all day. But the lead was real. All it needed was protecting.

No go.

What is it with Hernandez? He has blown six straight relief opportunities. His last save was a month ago. He hasn’t retired a batter in his last three appearances. Why does Anderson go to him? Well. Partly because he has little choice when it comes to lefty relievers. There’s Willie, Mark Thurmond and nobody. Maybe he hopes that this time will be the time Hernandez starts throwing like the old days, instead of the old daze.

“Did your bullpen let you down?” an out-of-town reporter asked Anderson after the loss.

“The Twins beat us,” he said.

“Are you going to have to stop using Hernandez?”

“I don’t talk about my players.”

Good teams’ players circle around one another when a game is lost. So no surprise that the Tigers players were hesitant to talk against the bullpen after the defeat. They rightly accepted this as a team loss, promised they would be back, and left it at that. “This is not the time to be critical of teammates,” said Alan Trammell. “I know what everybody wants to hear, but I’m not gonna say it.”

That’s OK, Alan. Everyone back home is saying it for you.

But all right. This is one loss; you don’t have to go home until you lose four, and the Tigers still have to be considered favorites in this series. True, Doyle Alexander took his first loss as a Tiger (“If you’d told me before the game eight runs would be scored on a night Doyle pitched, I’d have said no way,” Tramell admitted), but that was almost inevitable. You can’t win every time out. Alexander did not throw terribly. He just got certain pitches too high.

Take that, and then consider the circumstances. When the Tigers wake up this morning, no doubt it will be with a ringing in their ears. This place is a concrete cave, a rock-concert frenzy hidden inside a baseball game. Is it the national pastime, or the Stones tour? After every Twins home run, a Star Wars theme blasts over the loudspeakers as if the ships were landing on the infield.

That kind of noise, the funny lights, and the configuration of the stadium
(“Gary Gaetti’s two home runs would have been outs at Tiger Stadium,” Alexander said afterward) let you know why the Twins have been so successful here this year.

Alexander: “We came in here looking for a split. We can still do that. And even if we don’t, it’s no catastrophe.”

One loss is one loss. No more. No less. The encouraging part is that the Tigers generally treat defeat like a ketchup stain on a nice shirt. Oops. Well. What are you gonna do? They change the shirt and start clean. Do not look for residual effects of losing to Minnesota in the Metrodome. It is not that unusual.

More significant may be the effect on Minnesota. This team’s only hope is to get on a winning roll too powerful to be stopped. Winning a second game tonight could bloat them with their power under a roof, and, of course, even if the Tigers won in Detroit, the series would have to end here. But that is conjecture — something you fall into easily in the playoffs. Jack Morris is pitching for the Tigers tonight. And he is 8-0 in this stadium.

And hopefully, he won’t need any relief pitching.

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