NIGHT OF THE GAMBLER – RETRO OR FOR REAL?

Spit, glue, tape, bubble gum. The Tigers are on a leaky boat, grabbing what they can to plug their spurting holes, hoping to survive until the tide washes them to postseason shores. Wednesday night, the grizzled pirate Kenny Rogers, who had a blood clot removed from his shoulder in the spring, was taken out of the rusty trunk and pushed against the gushing water, asked – after six weeks away from the major league mound – to right the ship for a night.

How’d he do? Well, you know what they say about old boats. Sturdy. Reliable. Seaworthy. Rogers threw 83 pitches and only one would he really want back, a third-inning solo home run he surrendered to Danny Richar, a White Sox infielder hitting under .200.

Beyond that, Rogers was largely his old crafty self, getting guys to miss on pitches that theoretically they should pound into the Detroit River. He ended the first, second and third innings with strikeouts and finished with six in five innings, allowing just two hits and one run.

For a few hours – on this long baseball night – there was a whiff of 2006 from the mound. And when Timo Perez lined a shot off the rightfield wall, scoring Brandon Inge in the bottom of the 11th, you could inhale it all over the city.

“I was all right,” Rogers said when asked how he felt after the 2-1 victory. “The results were very acceptable.”

A wild race for a wild card

Of course, this was also a night when Jim Leyland all but conceded the division.

“At this point I tip my hat to them,” Leyland told the Free Press before the game when asked about the Cleveland Indians and their 7 1/2 -game lead. “They are winning the way division champions win. … For the most part, to be realistic, we are playing for the wild card. I’m sorry if people look at that and get mad and say that’s negative. It’s not negative. It’s a fact.”

And most fans know it. So now we have a scramble for every game, every night, in a contest of indirect musical chairs that features the Tigers, the Yankees and the Mariners. Neither New York nor Seattle is flawless, and catching either one is realistic.

Catching both may not be.

But what else can the Tigers do? Tape? Putty? Rubber cement? You think about all the names they have lost or missed through parts of the summer heat – Zumaya, Sheffield, Polanco, Thames, Rodney, Rogers – and you think about the new or lesser names they have thrown against their dragons – Maybin, Miller, Raburn, Hessman, Santiago, Vasquez, Perez, Capellan – and here they are, first week in September, still scrambling through the ammo closet and seeing what’s left.

Much of what they find is empty shells. On Wednesday night, they tried being aggressive. They twice pulled off double steals, only to yield no runs. They stranded more men than a Northwest Airlines flight schedule.

In the bottom of the eighth, with the bases loaded and two out, Curtis Granderson had a 2-0 count and he swung at the next pitch and popped it up. Don’t you want to make a guy throw a strike in that situation?

But that’s this season versus last season – when Granderson would’ve hit it over a wall. No sense of destiny. No daily magic. Maybe Rogers’ start and Perez’s finish is the beginning of something. Or maybe it’s just an up night in an up-and-down season.

Gray shades of 2006’s magic

Either way, Rogers’ brief but good performance was a soothing salve. You may forget how magical Rogers was last year, but I promise you, the Tigers’ pitchers don’t. This is still a young staff, and should Rogers, at 42, somehow recover his wizened wonder over five more starts, perhaps he could ignite some consistency in this inconsistent club.

“I think the club was pumped up to see him back,” Leyland said.

Remember, no one more symbolized Detroit’s resurgence in 2006 than Rogers. Given up on by many as too old, too used, he started 33 games and won 17 of them. In the playoffs, he was perfect: 23 innings, no runs, three victories, all of them huge.

Rogers is a pedigree the Tigers have been without most of the season. He has been sitting in jeans while the others were still showering. To see him back on the mound Wednesday night, sweating, wiping his gray whiskers, is to feel a small breeze of last year’s mighty winds.

And at this point, anything that pushes the Tigers’ boat toward shore, they’ll take.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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