PAYBACK!

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 Sunday night 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,” and 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 hittter, Jim Edmonds, to start frames. He did it by making four fielding plays himself at the mound, all sharp, all outs.

He did it by hunting and pecking the plate, giving St. Louis very little 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 just in a groove this postseason, he’s in his own tunnel. He doesn’t pitch from the mound, he gives sermons. He is Paul Newman in “The Verdict,” Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt,” the grizzled guy you didn’t think 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.

“It’s very satisfying,” Rogers said after the 3-1 victory that marked Detroit’s first World Series victory in 22 years and knotted the Series at one game apiece. “Our team needed a win today and I know that was huge.”

Huge?

They shout “KEN-NY! KEN-NY!” now down at the park.

I think 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 Kenny Rogers, the 41-year-old Texan, a guy who on 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 here. 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 win 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 of this World Series.

“Just to watch Kenny go and out and compete the way he has this postseason, it’s just uplifting to me and makes me want to go out and compete, too,” leftfielder Craig Monroe told the Fox cameras. “He’s been a rock for this baseball team.”

And they needed a rock.

Everyone knew what this game meant. Win it and make it a war. Lose it, and hit the road with 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. Before the game, in his news conference, it sounded as if he’d been barraged with questions on it.

“I don’t necessarily agree with what everybody says, that it was a terrible move,” he said. “I mean, that’s just my opinion.”

Soon enough, that was forgotten. The Tigers got their offense early from Monroe, who, in the first inning, 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 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 something beyond just shut down the Cardinals, he got the Tigers to forget about their blown chances. None more than in the fourth inning.

In a frame that had collapse written all over it for St. Louis, the Tigers 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 the 1-2-3 hitters for the Tigers went 1-2-3, a strikeout, a popup and a ground out, and St. Louis was not only free of danger, you imagined they 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. 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’ pitching hand. When he came out for the second inning, it was gone. Tony La Russa declined to talk about after the game. Leyland said, “He washed his hands and he was pretty clean from then on.” Rogers himself said it was “a clump of dirt and resin.”

It is worth mentioning, but only because it is odd. Let’s face it. Rogers could have had a Slinky attached to the ball the way he was pitching.

It was another night of Tigers love at the ballpark. 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. 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 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, that Rogers should deliver a gem.

“I’m just happy that I persevered to be here at this time,” Rogers said. “I know the things I’m capable of and dominating teams is not one of them.”

Could have fooled the Cardinals.

Now, of course, this only ties things. St Louis did what St Louis had to do, took one in Detroit. “I’m not unhappy,” manager Tony La Russa said, even 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 think twice. Imagine, then, what the Cardinals must be thinking.

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). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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