by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

TORONTO — The throw went straight from second base to second place. Too low, too hard, it ricocheted past catcher Mike Heath, and as Toronto’s Manny Lee raced across the plate with the winning run, the crowd inside Exhibition Stadium leapt to its feet in giddy delight. They won this? The Blue Jays won it? The Tigers lost it? Are you kidding?

Don’t believe all that talk about every game counts the same, a loss is just a loss, tomorrow is another day. This defeat will take a long time to fade from memory, and by the time it does, the Tigers may be gone as well. “We don’t have any choice but to win tomorrow,” manager Sparky Anderson would say after the stunning 3-2 defeat by the Blue Jays, the second one- run loss in two nights. “We don’t have any choices, period.”

One inning. One damn inning. How do you describe what fell apart in the bottom of the ninth Friday night, with one man out, nobody on, Tigers leading 2-0, and people filing out of here figuring this was a Toronto loss, see you tomorrow, the lead atop the AL East was back to a thread.

It was like watching a wall come down on your head. Up to that point, the Tigers had held off the Blue Jays as if yanking apart the jaws of an alligator. Remember, the Jays were hot. They had won five straight. And Detroit was starting Frank Tanana, who hadn’t won a game in seven weeks. Risky? Sure. Yet suddenly, magically, Tanana was back to form. He threw seven shutout innings. He saw batters swing badly, strike out, pop up. Seven shutout inning. Dickie Noles relieved him (“Frank was stiff,” Anderson would say) and retired the Jays in the eighth, and protected the slim lead until one out in the ninth.

And then? Oh my. First, Jesse Barfield singled to center. Then Anderson made a pitching change, brought in Willie Hernandez. You could almost hear the groans and hisses from Detroit.

And then it all came apart. Stupid, or just desperate? Hernandez quickly gave up a double to Rick Leach. Men on second and third. He then threw one pitch to Lee, who whacked it into right field for a triple, two runs scoring. In the Tigers dugout, the shoulders slumped. A matter of seconds, and the lead they had scratched for all night was gone.

So was Hernandez.

Let us stop here for a moment to address the Hernandez problem. He has done this time and time again, entered a critical game and blown it. He is no better than a game of Russian roulette now, and there is probably not a single fan in Detroit this morning who doesn’t want his head. His head is not the answer, but neither is his arm. He simply doesn’t have what it takes these days, and Anderson would be crazy to use him in another important situation this season. Crazy, or flat-out desperate.

He was certainly desperate after Hernandez’s fiasco Friday night. He called upon Mike Henneman, who intentionally walked Willie Upshaw and Nelson Liriano loading the bases to force a double play situation. A gamble at best, but all the Tigers wanted now was to escape into extra innings. And surprise! Lloyd Moseby came to the plate, and hit a sharp grounder to Lou Whitaker at second base. “It was just what we wanted,” Whitaker would say. He wheeled and threw to the plate, trying to nab the runner at home.

(There were those who thought he should have tried a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning. “No way,” Anderson would say. “We had the infield in. If he looks at second, and the shortstop isn’t there, that’s it. You might as well eat the ball.”)

No, Whitaker made the right move, but the wrong throw. “Too low, too hard,” he would say. How many times has he made that throw in practice? A thousand? Two thousand? Too low. Too hard. Heath could not field it, the ball ricocheted up into the air, and the crowd went crazy. The run scored. The game was over. An awful way to lose a game How terrible. How awful a way to lose this crucial ball game. Afterward, the Tiger clubhouse was subdued. Players talked about not getting too down, not giving up. But there was a feeling in the room, and the feeling said this was a real blow, one that can only be nullified now by nonstop winning. “This isn’t 1984,” Whitaker would say. “In 1984 we were cruising, everything came easy. This is 1987. We’ve come a long way just to be in this thing.”

Ironies. One inning. One stupid inning. In two successive nights now, the Tigers have lost games they might have won, if not for one stupid inning. They are now 2 1/2 games behind the Blue Jays. “It’s not good,” Anderson said. “It’s not good to do this with nine games left to play.”

He paused. He looked up at the group of reporters around his desk: “Do I have to get up in the morning? Or can I just stay in bed?” he asked with a grim smile.

Sorry, Sparky, you gotta get up. So do the Tigers, and fast.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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