THAT’S THE WAY!SHERIDAN CHANGES INTO TIGERS HERO

The game, the playoffs — the season, really — had all come down to this:

bottom of the eighth, Tigers losing, the October wind blowing mean and hard.

And who was at the plate? Clark Kent.

All right. Pat Sheridan. What’s the difference? Unlikely heroes? The Tigers’ No. 9 hitter? Tall, skinny, glasses? That Pat Sheridan? Wait. Give him a phone booth. Turn your back. “What’s he gonna do?” you ask. “Hit a home run?”

Whack.

Out of here! First pitch. A two-run shot that rose like destiny and landed in a roaring right-field upper deck. Pat Sheridan? For real? Jack Morris, the pinchrunner on first, loped around the bases like a happy deer, reached home plate, turned, waited, and as Sheridan came across — Tigers 7, Twins 6 — gave him as hard a high-five as a pitcher has ever thrown.

“I figured,” Morris would say, laughing, “I’ve had that done enough times to me. I deserved to do it back once!”

Isn’t that the whole story here? The whole theme of this crazy, come-from-behind Detroit victory in Game 3 of the American League playoffs? Had enough, do it back? The Tigers were bombarded with destiny hits for two nights in Minneapolis last week, two stunning defeats in Games 1 and 2, and for seven innings Saturday at Tiger Stadium, things were going the same way. A 5-0 lead had been squandered. The Twins — with the worst record of any division winner — had come back as if angels were guiding them. They had taken the lead, 6-5, were threatening a possible sweep of this series, and the Tigers were down to their last five outs.

And along came Sheridan. Tall, skinny, glasses.

A home run?

All right. Where’s the “S” on his chest?

How happy were you when that thing went out?” Sheridan was asked after the game as he rode in a yellow cart toward the center-field interview room, passing rows of cheering fans.

“How happy?” he yelled, waving at the crowd. “Well, let’s just say it’s the happiest I’ve been in a month.”

That’s not hard; Sheridan has barely played in a month. Rookie Scott Lasader often took his place down the September stretch. But Lasader was ineligible for the playoffs, and Sheridan, a 29-year-old, part-time right fielder with an odd resemblance to Buddy Holly, was back. And Saturday, when the Detroit big bats fell horribly silent, he delivered the hit that might serve as the single biggest pivot in this season full of pivots.

A home run?

“That’s kind of been our whole story,” yelled Sheridan, who hadn’t hit a home run since Aug. 20. “Somebody steps in, does it when they have to. It’s kind of typical, really.”

“What was the difference in the dugout when you left to hit and when you came back?” he was asked.

“Well, it was pretty tight before, and IT WAS. . .”

He didn’t finish. The cart stopped. A crowd of Tigers fans was screaming, the cheers echoing inside the concrete tunnel: “PAT! . . . PAT! . . . PAT!” He was drowned out.

But you get the picture.

Destiny takes a bounce. Until Sheridan’s homer — and the three big outs by reliever Mike Henneman that followed in the top of the ninth — this series was shaping up as the biggest upset of the year. And nobody would be more upset than the Tigers. Saturday was supposed to be the return to sanity, the escape from the Metrodome and its bubble roof and non-stop, beat-you-till-you’re-deaf loudspeakers, where the Tigers had dropped Games 1 and 2.

This was old baseball, Tiger Stadium baseball, outdoors, open air, with clouds and grass and dirt and wind. And it wasn’t helping. Walt Terrell was the third of three Tigers starters unable to clamp the lid on Minnesota. And the Twins bullpen looked tough. In the seventh inning, the Tigers, trailing 6-5, had a runner on first with their best hitters up against former Tiger Juan Berenguer. This is what happened: Kirk Gibson struck out looking. Alan Trammell popped out. Matt Nokes walked. And Chet Lemon — with the crowd on its feet, trying desperately to make something happen — fouled out.

“We were pretty tight in the dugout after that,” Trammell said. “It kind of felt like life or death.”

How many times have they seen that this season? This Detroit baseball team was almost dead before it started, with a horrible April and May. It was virtually dead when it fell behind Toronto by 3 1/2 games with a week left in the season. Life or death? An old equation in this city.

And here it was again. Let’s be honest. When Sheridan walked out to the plate in the eighth (one out, Morris on first), well, no one was thinking home run. “We really wanted to just keep the rally going,” Gibson said.

Inside the clubhouse, Terrell, gone after six innings, was in a T-shirt, watching on TV. Out in the bullpen, Dan Petry leaned over to his pitching mates and joked, “Let’s not just get one here. None of this tie-it-up stuff. Let’s get two.”

The other guys nodded blankly. After all, this was Jeff Reardon on the mound, the Twins best reliever. Against Pat Sheridan. Tall, skinny, glasses. Why not ask for the moon? Why not ask for the stars? Why not . . .

Whack.

Why not?

“Huge! Bleepin’ huge!” said Kirk Gibson of the hit, in the suddenly alive Tigers clubhouse afterward. “That really took a burden off.”

“Did you say anything to Sheridan when he came back to the dugout?” someone asked Gibson.

“Hell, everybody said something!”

Why not? This was more than a score-changer, it was an attitude changer. The difference between down 3-0, and down 2-1 — at least in a seven-game series — is as different as baseball with and without a roof.

So the Tigers win one. No funerals yet, thank you. True, it is not the same as pulling even. But at least now that is possible. Tonight’s game “will be the real tester,” Trammell admitted. But that is tonight. It will come soon enough.

When Sheridan’s hit touched down in the blue upper-deck seats, the crowd erupted with a burst of ecstasy. Followed by a burst of garbage. Cardboard placards were tossed like graduation day onto the field. It slowed down the game; it shouldn’t have happened. And yet, as the placards rained on the Minnesota outfielders, it was undeniably fitting of the “this is our house” attitude. For one October afternoon, anyhow, this unexpected Minnesota steamroller had been slowed by the least likely of heroes. Pat Sheridan. Tall, skinny, glasses.

“I never got too down while I was out of the lineup,” he said to reporters, even as his teammates began to file out. “I was still wearing the uniform. And there are a lot of people who would just like to be wearing this uniform.”

Yeah. Especially the red cape. CUTLINE: Jack Morris, right, welcomes home Saturday’s hero, Pat Sheridan, whose home run scored pinch-runner Morris and won the playoff game for the Tigers over Minnesota, 7-6. The batboy is Matt Good.

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