ROADWORK AHEAD

With the autumn sun slowly fading, and the baseball season down to its final hours, the Tigers looked out at the centerfield scoreboard and for the first time in more than four months, they were looking up. They were in second place. The Twins had won. They had nudged ahead of Detroit in the Central Division.

The Tigers were ensnared in one of those maddening, extra-inning games that could have been won a thousand times but instead was tied, 8-8, and going back and forth, back and forth, runners left on base, opportunities missed, pitchers coming out of the bullpen who never come out of the bullpen. The afternoon had become an opera, a fire that wouldn’t go out, and the Tigers were throwing buckets of anything to get it quenched and take what was rightfully theirs.

And here came the bottom of the 11th inning. Bases loaded. One out. A perfect time to show the pluck that this season has been about since Opening Day, doing the unexpected, winning on a final at-bat.

But such endings are for storybooks. This was baseball. And in baseball, funny things happen. So while the Tigers a week ago were clinching the playoffs against these very same Royals, sweeping them in three straight, celebrating with champagne, on Sunday, they were sliding down a greased pole, sinking into the muck, in danger of ending their season with five straight losses. Brandon Inge came to the plate. He struck out swinging. Curtis Granderson came to the plate. He struck out looking. The three stranded baserunners went to retrieve their gloves, and a hush fell over Comerica Park.

“That,” Jim Leyland would say, “was the backbreaker.”

Sure enough, in the top of the 12th, the Royals – yes, the Kansas City Royals, who had lost 100 games this year – scored two runs (one on a bases-loaded walk by Kenny Rogers) and a few minutes later, they completed the most improbable sweep since the last time Paris Hilton picked up a broom.

Three Tigers defeats in Detroit – when one victory would have given them the American League’s Central Division title?

That can’t happen, right?

So how does it happen?

“A 6-0 lead, that’s as good as it gets,” said Jeremy Bonderman, the dejected starting pitcher. “You gotta find a way to win that game. I didn’t pitch well enough after that, I got in trouble. … I let this team down. I let this crowd down that had come here to support us.”

The worst kind of loss

Well, it wasn’t just him. The soldout crowd, indeed, had come for a party and left with a wake. It was the strangest mix of emotions; after all, the Tigers are in the playoffs for the first time in 19 years. In anybody’s sports book, that’s cause for celebration.

But from the deflated sighs of the departing crowd to the morgue-like silence of the Tigers’ locker room, whatever celebration the moment carried had gone and hidden with the champagne bottles. All you saw in the clubhouse was the slumped posture of dismay, backs turned, eyes staring up at the ceiling or out into space, where a team that has a six-game lead over the Twins on Sept. 1 doesn’t finish behind them on Oct. 1.

“This is kind of a downer,” a reporter said to Rogers.

“Kind of a downer?” he mocked. “It’s a big downer.”

No denying. No pretending. This final week collapse, losing five in a row, all at home, is not what they mean when they say “take some momentum into the playoffs.” It’s not just the defeats. It’s the fact that the Tigers blew a 5-0 lead Friday night and a 6-0 lead Sunday afternoon, the fact that they surrendered seven runs, eight runs, nine runs, nine runs and 10 runs on consecutive days. The fact that it was to Toronto and Kansas City. You don’t want to imagine what the Yankees might do with that.

“The common denominator is we’re gonna have to pitch better than we did the last five days …” Leyland said. “If the pitching is what we’ve seen the last five days … we get to the playoffs, we’re not gonna be in long.”

You have to feel for Leyland, in his first year as Tigers manager. A week earlier, he was choking back tears at how proud he was of his team making the playoffs for the first time in 19 years. They still have that. They’ll never lose it.

But they should have had something tangible to go with it, a flag of some sort, the Central Division crown. To hand over the title on the final day, after owning it for so much of the spring and summer, feels a bit like surrendering a home you’ve fixed up, decorated and made your own, and allowing perfect strangers to plop onto your bed and couch.

Time for the second season

So what happens now? Well, you dust off, stand up and keep repeating the bright side: There is a postseason. There are more games to play. The Tigers will start in New York instead of here, and they will be playing the Yankees, not the Athletics, and they will not have home field as they would have, and …

Well, maybe that’s enough bright side.

“There shouldn’t be anybody happy in here, nobody should be giggling …” Rogers said. “We’re in the playoffs, but it’s a fallback position.”

All around him, players packed up, some too stunned to talk. Guys who won’t be on the playoff roster said good-bye to those who will be. Guys who thought they were going to sleep at home most of the week were now figuring what time they would leave for New York, who to call, what to do with the family.

“How do you put this disappointment behind you?” someone asked Carlos Guillen.

“It’s behind us now,” he said, setting his jaw. “I don’t see one guy crying in here.”

No. Just a lot of guys who looked as if they wanted to.

Maybe Leyland had the best idea. He said he wasn’t going to offer any pep talks Sunday. He said upbeat comments at such downbeat times often fall on deaf ears. Let it digest. Let it work though the system. Then today, when the scenery has changed, shift the focus to the future, what lies ahead, instead of the long, dismal afternoon behind them, a four-hour, 37-minute torture that saw the sun set on the first day of October, and a party pooped.

SIDEBAR

WE LOVE TO WATCH

With a sellout crowd of 40,155 Sunday, the Tigers broke their Comerica Park attendance record with more than 2.5 million fans. By the numbers:

DETROIT PISTONS

2005-06 attendance: 905,116, first out of 30 teams.

Average: 22,076 (100% of Palace capacity).

Tidbit: 126 straight regular-season sellouts.

DETROIT RED WINGS

2005-06 attendance: 822,706, third out of 30 teams.

Average: 20,066 (100% of Joe Louis Arena capacity).

Tidbit: Traditionally the hardest ticket in town.

DETROIT TIGERS

2006 attendance: 2,595,937, 13th out of 30 teams.

Average: 32,049 (80% of Comerica Park capacity).

Tidbit: Broke Comerica Park record of 2,533,752 set in 2000, its first year. Second-best season behind ’84 (2,704,794).

DETROIT LIONS

2005 attendance: 492,580, 28th of 32 teams.

Average: 61,522 (95% of Ford Field capacity).

Tidbit: All games sold out (by NFL rules discounting premium seats) and TV blackouts lifted since Ford Field opened in 2002.

DETROIT SHOCK

2006 attendance: 159,460, first of 12 teams.

Average: 9,380 (42% of Palace capacity).

Tidbit: Game 5 of WNBA Finals drew 19,671 fans to the Joe.

MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

2005 football attendance: 776,405, first of 117 teams.

Average: 110,915 (103% of Michigan Stadium capacity).

Tidbit: First in the nation in attendance since 1972 every year but 1973 and 1997.

MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS

2005 football attendance: 451,097, 19th of 117 teams.

Average: 75,183 (100% of Spartan Stadium capacity).

Tidbit: Ranked in the Top 20 for attendance the last 50 years.

Sources: Free Press research, NCAA, espn.com, womensbasketballonline.com.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. He will sign “For One More Day” at noon Friday at Starbucks at Maple and Lahser and at noon Saturday at Borders on Liberty in Ann Arbor.

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