SHELL-SHOCKED

NEW YORK – It is possible, in the Persian bazaar outside Yankee Stadium – sausages, stuffed animals, knishes, a man screaming about religion through a small amplifier, the creaky thunder of elevated trains, the smell of perfume and cigar smoke, fans crushing the turnstiles to cheer the best team money can assemble – to feel, shall we say, intimidated.

But you can’t play that way inside. Inside, the field is still grass, the base paths are still dirt and the rules are still the same: You have to get the other guys out.

Pitcher Nate Robertson, wearing glasses and looking like a college student, passed that exam for two innings Tuesday night, in the first playoff game the Tigers have graced in nearly two decades.

But two innings is not enough. Come the third, the mighty Yankees began with the top of their order, and nine batters later, they had two doubles, three singles, a towering home run, and a 5-0 lead. It was like a sampler pack. A test drive. Batters one through nine, and that’s what you get.

The Tigers never stopped looking up.

“I didn’t feel like I threw terrible tonight,” Robertson said after the 8-4 Game 1 defeat, “but … it’s just a tough lineup. They find a way to get hits. They can get some hits up on you really, really quick.”

Oh, the Tigers took their swings, too. They weren’t scared. They got three runs in the fifth inning and one in the seventh. They put a lot of men on base. But Magglio Ordonez, their cleanup hitter, couldn’t get runners across the plate several times, and Pudge Rodriguez, a guy the Tigers need to turn to, did not have his typical playoff lead-the-way performance (he was 0-for-4). And the very thing that Tigers fans feared most – that the weak starting pitching as of late was a habit, not a hiccup – haunted them again.

By the time Robertson walked off the mound – midway through the sixth – he had surrendered seven runs. Do the math. Starting pitching cannot give up seven runs if you want to be playing next week.

“Overall, he didn’t pitch as bad as it seemed,” manager Jim Leyland said.

I’m not sure what that means. But I know it doesn’t change the result. The Tigers need to turn their pitching around, and their first chance has been squandered.

When the game ended, 26 minutes before midnight, it was pretty much what the “experts” had predicted and exactly what the Tigers didn’t want. Too many runs allowed, not enough scored, and men on the mound who didn’t scare anybody, least of all the most potent team in baseball. So much power, so much talent

There was moment in the news conferences Monday that made the local TV here – perhaps you saw it in Detroit – where Joe Torre, the jowly Yankees manager, was asked about his lineup. He took out a card and turned it up, down and sideways, then basically said that he told his team could do the same with the nine starters and the power would pretty much be the same.

Up, down or sideways?

And the sad thing was, he wasn’t far off.

“Hopefully,” Torre said before Tuesday’s game, “we make it tough on the opposing pitcher.”

Right. And a sauna makes it tough on your antiperspirant.

This is an insane lineup the Tigers are facing. A pack of lions would think twice when facing it. Here is how good the Yankees are. They don’t just have a few guys in their lineup hitting .300. They have two guys hitting over .340! And one of them bats ninth!

And then there is Derek Jeter. Whoo boy. On Tuesday, he continued to show why New York fans love him, especially in October. Batting second, Jeter got the first hit of the game, a single, and proceeded to get a hit the next four times he came to the plate – including the coda, a walloping home run over the centerfield fence in the eighth inning. Even the jaded Yankees fans called for an encore bow, and he obliged.

Jeter is more than a reliable playoff performer, he is a catalyst, a lit wick, the hand on the throttle that starts the roaring engine.

“He had a pretty good night, didn’t he?” Leyland said.

It is hard to imagine the Yankees losing this series if he continues to be this torrid.

Coming up just short

But what can the Tigers do? Before the game, Leyland was asked about the intimidating Yankees bats, and he said what a good manager should say: “You have to pitch aggressively, you have to go after them and you have to take your chances. I think if you try to tiptoe around them you’re going to get beat.”

Robertson tried to do that on the mound. And Leyland tried it on offense. In the second inning, with two men on and nobody out, he called a hit-and-run with Ordonez and Carlos Guillen. But Rodriguez missed the ball, Ordonez was thrown out easily by catcher Jorge Posada, and a few pitches later, Pudge whiffed meekly for a third strike.

The next inning, the Tigers had two more baserunners. But Placido Polanco hit into an inning-ending double play, and they came up empty.

Against the Yankees, you’re only going to get so many chances – at least if you have to outscore them. Those might have been the Tigers’ best opportunities – hop out front early, put some heat on the favorites.

Instead, it was still scoreless going into the third inning, and then the Yankees put on their little clinic and ran from ahead the rest of the way.

“I think it might have been different if we scored first,” first baseman Sean Casey said.

Which was why they needed to.

A learning experience

Look, nobody said this would be easy and few people think it is even possible. But I still like the Tigers being here. I think this is for the best. If they are not good enough to win the World Series this year, let them at least face the biggest, baddest team in the biggest, baddest stadium and let the young guns feel what it is like to be washed in the spotlight. There is truly nothing like playing in Yankee Stadium, prime time, October in New York, not in the ballpark, not even on the way to the ballpark.

I took the subway. As the bodies crushed together in a sweaty mob, the conductor on the loudspeaker screamed his enthusiasm.

“Welcome to the D train, with stops at Yankee Stadium!” he crackled. Then, “Let’s go Yan-kees! Let’s go Yan-kees!” and he clicked his clicker several times.

Of course, he also added: “We’re gong for a sweep!” But what does he know? He just runs a train. The Tigers feel like they just got hit by one.

“Tomorrow is our year,” said reliever Todd Jones, looking around the locker room. “It’s our whole season.”

Let’s hope they can come home from New York, like many of its visitors, a little worn out, but with a good story to tell.

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

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