Moses parts the water, but Kenny Rogers turns the tide.
On a night when the weather said it’s time to stop playing baseball, Rogers took the mound and said no, we play on, we play like Game 1 never happened, we play like this magical Detroit year is still, well, magical. For the third time in this postseason, Rogers lifted his teammates’ chins, said, “Watch the old man do it,” went out there and hurled a masterpiece.
He did it by allowing no runs and two hits in eight innings of baseball. He did it by shutting down the creature from another planet, Albert Pujols. He did it by striking out the cleanup hitter, Scott Rolen, to end a frame, and by striking out the No. 5 hitter, Juan Encarnacion, and No. 6 hitter, Jim Edmonds, to start frames. He did it by making four sharp fielding plays at the mound.
He did it by hunting and pecking the plate, giving St. Louis mere morsels to eat. And he did it despite dangerously thin run support for much of the night. The Tigers got two runs in the first and one in the fifth, leaving more men stranded than the pilot of “Lost.”
But half a run might have been enough for Rogers. This guy isn’t in a groove this postseason, he’s in his own tunnel. He doesn’t pitch from the mound, he delivers sermons. He is Paul Newman in “The Verdict,” Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt,” the grizzled guy you didn’t think still had it in him, having it in him in spades.
Mixing change-ups, nibblers and the occasional fastball, he now has won three times since the regular season ended, all of them critical, all of them shutout performances, and is working on 23 straight innings without a run allowed.
This from a guy who had never won a playoff game in his life.
“When it came to pressure, I used to be the poster boy for failure,” Rogers said in the locker room after the 3-1 victory that marked his first ever World Series victory, Detroit’s first in 22 years, and the knotting of this Fall Classic at one game apiece.
“I used to get caught up in that, thinking I needed to be better than I am. I knew tonight was a big game and I wanted to pitch well. But I’m learning not to let the situation dictate how I feel. It took a lot of failure to figure that out.”
I think he’s got it figured. They shout “KEN-NY! KEN-NY!” now down at the park.
It’s still echoing this morning.
The one they needed
Remember, this isn’t one of those “Who are the Beatles?” kids on the mound. This is 41-year-old Texan, a guy who Saturday was answering questions about whether he’d considering retiring in spring training: not this spring training, three years ago!
“At that point my mind-set was that I probably wasn’t going to play anymore,” he said.
Thank goodness somebody called him and offered him a job. That was several jobs ago, of course. He has bounced around a lot in his long career, but, man, has he found a home in Detroit. I don’t want to say Comerica Park has been very, very good to Rogers, but if he does this one more time, they might not only rename the stadium, they might rename the bank.
Rogers now has shut down the Yankees, the Athletics and the Cardinals. He is as big a reason why the Tigers are here as anyone on this team. He changed the mood of these playoffs with his inspirational victory against New York, he put the Tigers on the brink of the Series with his zeroes against Oakland, and he now has erased whatever hangover existed after the drubbing the Tigers suffered in Game 1 against St. Louis.
“To see Kenny go with the high emotion and get really excited about making plays and making pitches,” said leftfielder Craig Monroe, “it makes you, as an outfielder, as a position player, want to do the same thing.”
Everyone knew what this game meant. Win it and make it a war. Lose it, and you have a good chance of ending your season on a quiet plane ride home. The Tigers had spent enough time thinking about whether they should have pitched to Pujols in the third inning of Game 1 – at least Jim Leyland did. Like a teacher with restless school kids, he desperately needed a new subject.
It came quickly enough. In the first inning, Monroe smacked a Jeff Weaver pitch a good 420 feet to left-center, making it two home runs in two swings (he hit one late in the game Saturday night). Carlos Guillen smacked a double to bring home Magglio Ordonez and, just like that, it was 2-0.
Unfortunately, that was all the scoring for more than an hour.
It didn’t seem to faze Rogers. His impassioned performance – pointing, yelling, pumping a fist, not the norm for Rogers, but then, what’s the norm anymore? – did more than just shut down the Cardinals, it got the Tigers to forget about their blown chances. It got them to forget their stranded base runners. He got them to forget the fourth inning, which had collapse written all over it for St. Louis. The Tigers had loaded the bases on a hit batsman, a single and a Pujols error. No one out. All they needed was a long fly ball for a run, and the potential was for much more. But their 1-2-3 hitters went 1-2-3, a strikeout, a pop-up and a ground out, and St. Louis was not only free of danger, you imagined the Cardinals would respond at the plate.
Wrong. Not with Rogers there. The door was closed. The bar was dry. The plates were clean and put away.
“I think he’s on a mission,” Leyland said.
Mission, once again, accomplished.
Old friends were there
A moment here for something TV made a big controversy. After the first inning, Fox showed what seemed to be a dark substance on Rogers’ left hand, his pitching hand. When he came out for the second inning, it was gone. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa declined to talk about after the game. Leyland said: “They made Kenny wash his hands and he was pretty clean the rest of the way.” Rogers himself said it was “a clump of dirt and resin.” The umpire supervisor, Steve Palermo, dismissed as exactly that which didn’t stop the media corps from acting as if they’d discovered a weapon of mass destruction.
Well, it is the World Series. Even the little is BIG. But let’s face it. Rogers could have had a Slinky attached to the ball the way he was pitching.
“Do you realize how much your performances have affected the mood of the team in the postseason?” Rogers was asked. “Especially the young players?”
“Aw, what makes them feel good is to be say, Look at that old geezer. If he can do it, I can do it,’ ” Rogers said, removing his uniform after the clubhouse had mostly cleared. “I appreciate them as much or more than they do me.”
Well, it was that kind of night at the ballpark. Appreciate your elders. While it lacked the rock concert atmosphere of Game 1, there was a good deal of memory trotted onto the infield. Anita Baker sang the national anthem. Her biggest hits were back when Sparky Anderson managed this team, and there was Sparky, dapper in a gray sportscoat and lime turtleneck, throwing out the first pitch. And one of Sparky’s favorite players was his shortstop, Alan Trammell, and, in a sign that once a Tiger, always a Tigers, here came Trammell – whose firing last October may have made room for all of this to happen – trotting to the mound to a thunderous ovation.
So it only made sense that, on this night of the old feeling young again, Rogers should deliver a gem.
Of course, this only ties things. St Louis did what St Louis had to do: took one in Detroit. “I’m not unhappy,” La Russa said after the loss. The Tigers have plenty of work to do, that’s for sure.
But as they board the plane for the city with the arch, they do so knowing they have a guy on the roster who, if they need him to, will pitch again, and right now can turn a tide so effectively, he’d make Pharaoh reconsider.
Imagine, then, what the Cardinals must be thinking.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). www.freep.com/mitch.