NEW YORK — The skies were dark now, and Sparky Anderson had slipped on his jacket to fight the chill. It was the longest moment of the longest game of the season. It was the bottom of the 18th, and after what had seemed like a lifetime, the Tigers were finally ahead of the Yankees by a run.

And that made it worse.

Better to have loved and lost, Shakespeare said, but he wasn’t talking about baseball. It hurts twice as much when you have it and blow it.

Which brings us to Guillermo Hernandez, the focus of Anderson’s gaze. Hernandez had already committed the cardinal sin — walking the leadoff man, Rickey Henderson — and now he was facing Claudell Washington, who had beaten the Tigers Friday night with a home run in the bottom of the ninth. Half of Yankee Stadium was empty by this point, unfilled seats whose patrons had bailed out for dinner, for traffic, for work the next morning. Geez. Why not? The game was already six hours old. Only the bloodthirsty would stay for this.

Hernandez got a strike on Washington. 0-1. In the dugout, Anderson did not move. His breath was coming faster. His hands shook. “I’ve been around too long to celebrate anything,” he would say later. Especially a one-run lead against a team that had beaten his three straight, all come-from-behinders.

Hernandez set, looked and delivered a fastball — and there went the season. From the press box, you could almost hear Washington smack his lips.

Crack! The ball lifted off toward the bleacher fans and did not descend until it was safely in their warm caress — a two-run homer, a game-winner, a firecracker across the New York skyline. The Yankees were alive again in the pennant race. They had swept Detroit four straight. Washington was met at home plate by a mob of his teammates. They sang his praises and slapped his hands and the die-hard fans were jumping up and down.

Anderson never saw any of it. He was already deep in the stadium tunnel, heading for the longest night of a manager’s season, the one in which he sleeps with the voices that whisper, “It’s over.” More than a win died

“Did you know that ball was gone as soon as he hit it?” someone asked the manager in his small office, after the 5-4 Yankees victory.

“I knew,” he mumbled, barely audible. He was staring at the floor and he did not look up. Outside his door, the Tiger clubhouse was a morgue. Something more than a victory had died in this endless afternoon and evening. “We gave it everything we had,” Mike Henneman whispered. Indeed. Eighteen innings? Six hours? Countless pinch hitters and relief pitchers? What more could they give? There were four stolen bases by Gary Pettis. There were seven scoreless innings of relief by Henneman. There was a miracle throw by Chet Lemon from the farthest right field corner, a throw that flew high and long and with the hopes of an entire city, and bounced magically in the glove of Tom Brookens in time to tag Gary Ward at third base and kill a rally.

How could they lose after that? How could they lose with all that effort, from a solo homer by Alan Trammell in the seventh to an RBI single by some kid name Torey Lovullo in the top of the 18th? That should have been the game-winner, right? Some rookie from California helps massage the heartbeat of Detroit, gives it life? Perfect ending, right?

Perfect, perhaps. But not for this day. When you lose the ones you can’t lose, the game is saying something to you. It’s saying: Move over. We’re kissing someone else this year.

“I thought we had it,” Henneman said. But they did not. They trail the Red Sox now by 3 1/2 games — same as the Yankees — but these are two teams heading in opposite directions. The Tigers have lost 17 of 20 games, and even the staunchest of supporters would have a hard time saying they deserve the pennant now.

“Was this the worst weekend you’ve ever had in baseball?” someone asked Anderson.

He said nothing.

It was. Tigers caught up with themselves

What has happened? Why has a first-place team that was always on the fat side of close games fallen horribly flat? Here is my theory: It’s not so much that bad luck has caught up with the Tigers as the Tigers have caught up with themselves.

Remember, this was never a good hitting team — “We knew that in spring,” Anderson admits — and so its only hope was spectacular pitching, which it had for a while but has no longer. Jeff Robinson was snatched away by the weirdest of injuries. Frank Tanana got hurt, Eric King got hurt, Doyle Alexander slumped and Hernandez returned to his old woes. The pitching became good, not great, and good is not good enough.

This is reality: Detroit now has the worst offense in the league, except for Chicago and Baltimore — and you see where those teams are. Only one Tigers hitter, Trammell, gives opposing pitchers any concern. It tells you something about your offense when Torey Lovullo has to save you after 18 innings.

And so it goes. If indeed the Tigers finish as also-rans come October, then this game, that pitch, that gloriously awful home run, may be circled in red.

Anderson shrugged. He had nothing to say. Outside, players packed silently. Hernandez sat by himself, shirtless, staring at the wall. Suddenly he slapped his shoulder, as if there were a fly, but when he looked at his hand it was empty and he shook his head and it was quiet again, as quiet as death.

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