Kenny Rogers pushed the dirt from his coffin and rose to take the mound once again. He had been buried many times before. Overpaid. Bad temper. Too old. Fades down the stretch. On Friday night, his grave was to be dug by his nibbling pitches, his crafty but slow-ball approach. Won’t work, they said. Not against the Yankees. Rogers hadn’t beaten the Yankees in 13 years, remember? These are the Yankees. Can’t you see they’re the Yankees?

Yeah, yeah. We know they’re the Yankees. And these are the Tigers. And before you bury a player – or his team – you had better make sure they’re not still squirming.

On a chilly autumn night, under a full moon, in a stadium that had never played host to a playoff game, in a city that had waited 19 years to see one, the Tigers, behind a masterful and most unlikely performance by the 41-year-old Rogers, took a huge step forward in the race to eliminate the Yankees in this first-round series.

And they proved an axiom. Joining the circle of winning playoff teams is a bit like joining a church: Before you belong, you have to believe.

How’s your faith now?

“I wanted this game as much as I ever wanted any game in my life,” Rogers said after the 6-0 victory that gave him his first career playoff victory and the Tigers a 2-1 lead in this division series. “A lot of people may have had us like David vs. Goliath, but I think we all felt we had a chance.”

A chance? They just shut out the Yankees! And Rogers, with whiskers as gray as the Yankees’ road uniforms, was the story of the night. He kept New York scoreless into the eighth inning and allowed only one hitter to get beyond second base. He was smart, he was gutsy, and he was as determined as, well, as a fighting man keeping a coffin lid from being closed.

“Maybe it comes from failing so much,” Rogers said. “I’m not afraid to fail. I’m still here for a reason. I like the challenge. I know I’m fortysomething and don’t have a lot of talent left … but I do believe in myself.”

Rogers, in allowing five hits and striking out eight over 7 2/3 innings, was everything the Tigers hoped he would be when they signed him last winter – and nothing like the last time he pitched.

Remember that game? Just six days ago? Rogers had played the reliever in extra innings and was tagged with the loss in the final game of the regular season, the loss to Kansas City that cost the Tigers the Central Division.

That performance, you could say, was what led to the Tigers playing the Yankees. So it seemed only fitting that Rogers turn that into a positive.

And man, did he do that.

Baffling the New Yorkers

Time after time on this memorable Detroit night, Rogers got some of the biggest bats in baseball to look as if it were their first day in the school play. Pitches were missed, tipped, chopped, topped or hit harmlessly to the gloves of waiting fielders.

In four different innings, Rogers got batters to strike out with a man on base, taking the steam out of any potential rally. He whiffed Johnny Damon. He whiffed Hideki Matsui. He whiffed Bernie Williams. He whiffed Bobby Abreu twice.

Even more amazing, he seemed to get stronger as he went along! Since when is that allowed to happen?

“No pun intended,” manager Jim Leyland said, “but I think tonight was a case where Kenny definitely got better with age.”

Rogers, who threw 113 pitches, was supposed to wither as the game went on. He is, after all, a senior, senior citizen by baseball standards.

But age does many things. For one, it makes you impatient. Rogers, who bristles at critics who say he fades in the late months, has said on many occasions here he doesn’t want to talk about how he pitches in September, “I want to talk about pitching in October.”

And he has been waiting to beat the Yankees forever.

The last time he did it was 1993, the first year he became a full-time starter. Thirteen years without beating the Yankees? That kind of record scares even stalwart managers, and Rogers was deliberately denied the chance to pitch at Yankee Stadium in favor of a home start Friday night. Maybe he didn’t like that. Maybe his pride was hurt. If so, the chants of “KEN-NY! KEN-NY!” from the sold-out Comerica Park crowd probably eased the sting of that.

“I just tried to show what I could do,” he said, “and show that I’m a different guy because” the Yankees “have shown they can wear out the other guy.”

Well, this guy had a hell of a night. And when he walked off the mound in the eighth inning, he tipped his cap to a thunderous standing ovation. That’s a great moment in baseball. A moment worth waiting for, even if you had to pass your 41st birthday to see it.

There’s work to be done

Now, this is hardly a done deal. Someone was going to be up two games to one today, and if you count the Yankees out you haven’t seen the Yankees play.

But Friday was one of those nights where the game was a little more than a date on the baseball calendar, it had a ring of pixie dust around it. Remember, playoff baseball has been dormant in Detroit since Ronald Reagan’s second term.

“It will be a whole new chapter tomorrow,” Leyland predicted.

But Friday night, with autumn air so cool and crisp, all that was missing was the smell of burning leaves. The Four Tops sang the national anthem, Al Kaline threw out the first pitch and Ernie Harwell was heard on several broadcast outlets – including the national ESPN telecast – his sweet voice reminding people that Detroit not only was a great baseball town, it still is.

We’ve just been waiting for the team.

Maybe this is the one. You can say this much. The Tigers are not intimidated by their circumstances. Not only did they win Friday night, they did it smartly, patiently, collectively, and they did it against Randy Johnson. You remember him? The Big Unit? Supposed to mow people down?

Instead, the Tigers nickel and dimed him for run after run. Seeing-eye singles. Line drives just over the infielders’ gloves. The Tigers didn’t just hit the ball the right way, they hit it at the right time. They got three runs in the second inning with a collection of timely hits, and they scored two more in the sixth, both with two outs.

And every time they took the field, they were boosted by the wizardry of Rogers, who rarely threw over 92 miles an hour but made batters look as if they were swinging at comets.

“If I was going to get beat, I was leaving it all out there,” Rogers said. “I couldn’t put more effort into the game than I did tonight.”

It showed.

And Game 4 this afternoon is gonna be some kind of scene at the ballpark.

They shut out the Yankees? They chased Randy Johnson? They mowed down Murderers’ Row? They’re one victory from the American League Championship Series?

Yep, yep, yep and yep. Let the Yankees, for once, worry about dirt being tossed on their coffin. No Tigers will die tonight.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. He will sign copies of his new novel, “For One More Day,” at noon today at Borders on Liberty in Ann Arbor.

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