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

The small comeback story sits inside the big comeback story. Frank Tanana was throwing so badly two weeks ago Sparky Anderson took the ball away from him. No one knew when he would pitch again. Yet, there he was Tuesday night, pitching again, pitching well, allowing just three hits in eight innings. And winning — his first win in seven weeks. Seven weeks? Bad to good. The small comeback story.

“I looked up on that scoreboard and saw a ’14’ after my name,” said Tanana, after Tuesday’s important 10-1 win over Baltimore, “and I said to myself,
‘Boy, it’s been a long time between win No. 13 and No. 14.’ I’m real glad. I’ve found my groove again.”

That’s it? That simple? Hadn’t Tanana gone eight starts without a win? Pitched so poorly that he only lasted two-thirds of an inning against Boston two weeks ago? And now he’s found his groove? So much so that Anderson says he may start him Sunday in the final regular-season showdown against Toronto?

Well. Why not? Hasn’t the whole Tigers season been like this? Someone gets hot, cools off, someone else gets hot, cools off. The Tigers start the season losing, climb back into it, lose three to the Blue Jays over the weekend, yet are suddenly just 1 1/2 games out. Hasn’t the whole year been like this? Small comebacks inside the big comeback?

Yes. And for Tanana it is doubly sweet. Here is a guy who was the Tigers’ best pitcher the first half of the season. Then things went sour. One bad outing. Another. Another. So unreliable had he become, that Anderson removed him from the rotation after the Boston start. “It had to happen,” Tanana admitted. “If I were a manager I’d have taken myself out, too.” He keeps ’em guessing

Who knows how things sour? Who knows how they turn around? A few days after his removal, Tanana called to catcher Dwight Lowry during a warm-up. “I wanna see something here,” Tanana said. He started throwing. Suddenly, it felt good. Suddenly, after six bad weeks, the arm was doing what it was supposed to.

“It’s funny,” Tanana said, “when things go bad, a pitcher becomes like a hitter. You try different things, you toy with this idea, you toy with that idea, next thing you know, you’ve gotten completely away from what you should be doing.”

What Tanana should be doing is what he did Tuesday night. Keep batters guessing. Fool them with slow stuff, changeups. “I wasn’t doing that. For whatever reason, I started to throw across my body more than I had to . . .

“Then I tried to compensate by overthrowing. And that’s foolish. If I try to throw harder, how fast am I going to get it? Eight-five miles an hour? That’s useless. I actually needed to throw softer.”

He rediscovered that light touch in the practice with Lowry. Anderson says it was simply “rest. His arm was dead.” Tanana says it was more than that. He needed to break the downward spiral. And, once done, he needed to get back in. Anderson obliged. Tanana went seven good, meaty innings in last Friday’s loss to Toronto.

And Tuesday, he finally got his dessert. Finally, a win

Frank Tanana, as most people know by now, is a thin man with a cheerful personality, the kind of guy you hope does well. He makes no secret of his strong religious convictions, and during his brief exit, he truly needed them. “I told myself if I never get another start, it’s not the end of my life,” he said. “That helped me.”

“If you hadn’t been taken out of the rotation,” he was asked, “do you think you would have come back to win on your own?”

He shrugged. “We can only go with what is — and what is says it’s the best thing that could have happened.”

The flashy news Tuesday night was the scoreboard. The flashy news was Jim Walewander’s baserunning, and Chet Lemon’s three- run homer, and the score in Toronto. But the quiet news, maybe the best news, was the satisfied look on Tanana’s face when the game ended. A win. Finally, a win.

‘What did I learn from this?” Tanana said, rubbing his chin. “Well . . . that these things are gonna happen. Let’s face it. I pitched myself out of a job. But I kept a good frame of mind, and I was given a chance to come back.”

How very familiar. Already this season we’ve seen hot streaks by Jack Morris, Kirk Gibson, Darrell Evans, Bill Madlock. And cold streaks by Jack Morris, Kirk Gibson, Darrell Evans, Bill Madlock. We’ve seen rookies named Walewander and Lusader come from nowhere and help win. We have seen fifth place and first place and everything in between. And come Sunday, in perhaps the biggest game of the entire season, we could see Tanana out on the mound.

The small comeback within the big comeback. The Tigers are very much alive in this crazy AL East race. They can only hope now for a happy ending. And do every damn thing to ensure they get it.

Sorry about the damn, Frank.


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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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