THIS ROUND GOES TO YANKS, BUT WHAT OF THE NEXT ONE?

NEW YORK — The series was complete, the bus was waiting outside, and the Tigers players, still wet from the showers, dressed quickly, pulling on their socks and shoes. The clubhouse was quiet; it is always quiet after a loss. But no one was sulking. You don’t sulk in the middle of the fight.

They had come into this unforgiving city two games out of first place; they were leaving three games out. One win. Two losses. Could’ve been better. Could’ve been worse. And now, this weekend, the Yankees will do the visiting to Detroit (where, they will be delighted to learn, you can actually park a car for under $25 an hour), and we shall see what we shall see.

“We only dropped one game,” was the Detroit theme on Sunday. But there was more to this series than standings. This was David and Goliath meeting again, only this time David had grown and gone to Nautilus. The last clashes of Tigers and Yankees were in April, when the Tigers appeared to be tied to a concrete slab and headed downriver. They played six times. Detroit lost five.

“They’re playing 100 percent better now,” said Yankees right fielder Dave Winfield, just a few hundred feet from where the Tigers were dressing. “I’m glad we finally got to play them. We’ve been reading about how they’ve been going through teams like a hot knife through butter. We wanted to see what they were about.”

“And what do you think?” he was asked. “Will they be in the race with you and Toronto?”

“I think so,” he said. “Back in April they were awful! And now, they’re good.” What could have been

How good, of course, is the question. But Winfield is not the one to answer it. That honor will fall to the arms and bats of the Tigers themselves, and as they dressed Sunday they seemed concerned only that the minutes would not pass quickly enough before the Yankees were back across the diamond again.

“We should’ve won two of the three here,” said Sparky Anderson, puffing on his pipe after Sunday’s defeat. “Everybody knows it. We outplayed them and outhit them the entire series. We should have won Friday’s game maybe 8-6.”

That game was lost, 6-5, with a ninth-inning home run by New York’s Gary Ward, after the Tigers had blundered several scoring chances. The Tigers ran away with it, 10-5, Saturday. The Yankees returned the favor, 8-5, Sunday.

“We match up well,” said Darrell Evans. That much was obvious. And both teams can score big. In three games, the Yankees and Tigers combined for 74 hits and 39 runs. Some pitchers should have picked up the resin bag and waved in surrender.

Could have been better. Could have been worse. Could have been different. Purists will note that the Yankees were without Rickey Henderson and Willie Randolph. Purists will say it softly around Kirk Gibson. “I don’t give a bleep who they have out there!” said the left fielder, who had one of his finest offensive series of the season this weekend (7-for-14, two homers, four RBIs). “We’re capable of stopping Rickey Henderson. We’re capable of stopping Don Mattingly. We’re capable of pounding the bleep out of their pitchers.

“Hey. If you’re scared of your opponent, quit. We’re not scared of anybody.” We’ll see you soon

Besides, Tigers fans argue, Jack Morris did not pitch this series because it was not his turn. Morris is to the Tigers’ staff what Rick Rhoden (Sunday’s winner) is to the Yankees’, and then some.

(Let’s address the Morris thing right here. First of all, according to Morris, had the Tigers lost Saturday, he very likely would have pitched Sunday. “There were pretty good indications,” he admitted, although Anderson never gave any such signal to the press. Doesn’t matter. They won Saturday. It was unnecessary to make a move. Morris, who pitches tonight, summed it up best: “We have to win Monday, too.”)

But forget what we didn’t see. Here is what we saw: The Tigers indeed belong in the hunt. The Yankees have the best home record in baseball, and Detroit very nearly took two out of three. The Tigers are no shoo-ins, but neither are the Yankees or the Blue Jays. What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a race.

In the ninth inning Sunday, the Tigers were losing badly, 8-3. A perfect time to pack it in and head for the airport. Darnell Coles was at the plate —

he was in the game only because of an injury to Tom Brookens and an earlier pinch-hit for Jim Walewander — and yet, for all the problems he has had this season, he stroked a single to left. And Lou Whitaker followed with a home run. And it was 8-5.

Sure, Evans, Gibson and Alan Trammell went down once super reliever Dave Righetti came in. But Whitaker’s blast was a subtle reminder. The Tigers may lose, but they never leave early. Nobody’s lying down in this race.

“Hey,” said Gibson, “we took it to Righetti Friday. He took it to us today. I tip my hat. . . . “

He grinned. “I tip my hat and say: ‘See ya next weekend, big boy.’ “

Can you wait?

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