FOR THE BIRDS

And on the seventh day, they played baseball.

I think it was baseball.

It wasn’t Tigers baseball. Not the brand we’d gotten used to in this postseason. It was more like a badly cracked egg: first the yoke broke and soon pieces of shell were floating everywhere. Home runs were surrendered. Errors were made. Balls went flying where they weren’t supposed to go flying. And the Detroit bats – swinging too often at first pitches – were all but silent.

“We didn’t play well, we didn’t swing the bats well, overall we didn’t give a good performance,” said Jim Leyland after the 7-2 blowout.

Saturday Night Clunker. After a six-day wait that seemed like a season in itself, the Tigers took the field to play this long-awaited World Series, and, suddenly, their heartbeats, at such a low-key rhythm all last week, seemed to accelerate into nervously thumping chests –whoa, this thing is really happening!– perhaps none more than inside the lanky frame of rookie Justin Verlander, their starting pitcher.

Verlander, 23, was barely out of diapers the last time this city saw a Fall Classic. To many at Comerica Park, he is still, by word and age, “a kid.”

But that’s the thing about the World Series. We get to be kids. On the mound, kids have to be men.

Verlander pitched too much like both, and the Tigers the opener, ending their playoff winning streak at seven games and putting themselves in a quick hole against a team with momentum. Watching Verlander work Saturday night was like looking through a lens that kept slipping in and out of focus. At times, he was masterful, as when he struck out the side in the fourth inning. But too often he flailed, he threw more balls to the dirt than he has any need to, and he made two pitches that two lucky fans now have as souvenirs – because they were hit out of the park. He gave up a second-inning solo homer to Scott Rolen. And he made the Cardinal sin against the Cardinals.

He let Albert Pujols get in his head.

And then he got in Albert’s wheelhouse.

Verlander vs. Pujols

Can’t do that. The guy is too beefy, too strong and too good for that. But it happened anyhow. In the third inning – after striking out Pujols the first time he faced him – Verlander challenged the reigning National League MVP with two men on and a base open. You might ask why not walk him, and that would be a fair question. But boy, did he NOT walk him. Verlander’s first pitch was express-trained over the rightfield wall – that made it 4-1.

“It’s a manager’s decision to pitch him or walk him,” Leyland said. “I pitched to me and obviously he burned us, so I take the bullet there.”

And with how the Tigers were dribbling their bats against St. Louis starter Anthony Reyes, the game was all but over after that.

But Pujols wasn’t. In the fifth inning he drew a full-count walk from Verlander and you’d have thought Verlander just let Carl Lewis on base. He threw to first to try and keep Pujols honest – and instead threw the ball away, sending Pujols to third. The man Verlander should have been concentrating on, the batter, Jim Edmonds, then lined a single to score Pujols and you could feel the composure of the team just sink.

Two batters later, with Verlander gone, Brandon Inge bobbled a ball then threw it a mile from catcher Pudge Rodriguez, allowing another run to score before getting knocked over by St. Louis’ Scott Rolen, who was rounding third. He plowed into Inge like a Michigan linebacker. What’s worse, he got to score when the umpire called interference on Inge.

And Inge is as good a fielder as the Tigers have.

It was that kind of game.

Saturday Night Clunker.

Game 2 a must-win affair

And now, for the Tigers, it has to be that kind of memory. You don’t get time in a World Series to ponder or analyze. The Tigers had been sitting for so long, the only thing really getting exercise was their brain cells. And as we all know, too much thinking is not always good in baseball.

Maybe that was why they swung at first pitches as if they were laced with destiny. (Too much of that “visualization” stuff?) All the Tigers really did with their quick flailing was help Cardinals manager Tony La Russa more than he can thank them for. He was stuck putting Reyes as a starter because the Cards had just finished a long series against the Mets and the rotation required it. Surely, La Russa swallowed a few times sending out a 25-year-old rookie who wasn’t even included on his first-round playoff roster and who had a 5-8 regular-season record.

But thanks to the impatience – and perhaps the rust – of the Tigers batters, Reyes was still out there in the eighth inning and hadn’t even thrown 90 pitches. His performance will go down as one of the most unlikely in World Series history.

“This has got to be the best thing that ever happened in my career,” Reyes told the Fox cameras.

Ugh, duh. He’s only a rookie. The last time a St. Louis pitcher beat the Tigers in a World Series game here it was a fella named Bob Gibson. And as nicely as Reyes pitched Saturday, he was no Bob Gibson.

“I hope my next three pitch as well as my first one,” La Russa said.

Hey, Tigers. I know all the experts were picking you to win this thing, but don’t feel an obligation to help balance the odds.

For one thing, the Cardinals don’t believe them. For another, sports, especially recently, is thick with examples of underdogs winning championships, from Texas in college football to the Red Sox two years ago in baseball. It seems the more that teams are branded “unlikely”- there’s that word again – the more unlikely things happen.

The Tigers already have used their regular-season ace, Verlander, and while nobody can blame the kid for a less than great outing – he is, after all, a rookie – his confidence must be an issue for his next start.

Meanwhile, La Russa has his staff rested and ready for tonight and Jeff Weaver taking the starter’s mound.

It was a great scene down at the ballpark, a great atmosphere, a great sight of Bob Seger singing “America the Beautiful” and Ernie Harwell doffing his cap on the pitcher’s mound. And it’s a great feeling to be playing baseball this late in October no matter what.

But great feelings don’t win ballgames, great pitching and hitting does. The Cardinals got plenty in each category and it was enough to slap the Tigers out of the dreamy euphoria we have all been lounging in and remind them that four more victories are required before they have happy dreams all winter.

On the seventh day, they played baseball. And today, Sunday, is called the day of rest. It better not be for the Tigers.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. www.freep.com/mitch.

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