TIGERRR-IFIC!

First game, they were in awe. Second game, they got moving. Third game, they knocked guys over. If there was a story line to this hugely-important-even-if-it’s-not-hugely-important series against the White Sox, you could characterize it that way.

The Tigers began Tuesday night as if standing offstage with their mouths agape. But by Thursday afternoon, they were gritting teeth, pushing the defending champions aside and jumping into the hot spotlight, sweat flying, the crowd going wild.

The White Sox came in 4 1/2 games behind. They leave 5 1/2 games behind. Beating all-world pitcher Jose Contreras on Thursday wasn’t just a win, it was a series win, and it wasn’t just a series win, it was the end of the “Tigers can’t beat White Sox” talk, and it wasn’t just the end of the “Tigers can’t beat White Sox” talk, it was a message to the defending champions: You’re good, we’re good, too.

See you next time.

“It was fun,” said Jim Leyland, who says “it was fun” the way a bar bouncer says, “You got ID?” But that’s because Leyland has this whole thing in perspective. And he knows this much:

For all the noise, the story of Thursday’s 2-1 victory was a pitcher who didn’t win and a batter who didn’t get a hit.

The crafty veteran

Let’s start with Kenny Rogers. They say pitchers don’t pitch against other pitchers, but when the other pitcher is Contreras, likely the best right-hander in the American League and a guy who had a recent winning streak that lasted 11 months- well, like it or not, you are pitching against the other pitcher. You can’t give up five runs or four runs or maybe even two runs, because the odds of getting that number off Contreras are slim.

“Rogers gives up four, we lose,” Leyland said. Simple as that. And it wasn’t like Rogers didn’t flirt with it. He let a man on in the second inning, two men on in the third inning and loaded the bases in the fourth inning.

But when the smoke cleared, only one run crossed the plate. Rogers changed speeds, changed pitches and managed to coax double plays and harmless fly balls from the bats of threatening hitters. That one run would be all the Sox would get.

It was masterful by Rogers, and should have earned him a victory. But he left the game after six innings and 88 pitches because, as Leyland put it, “it was hot and humid and he’s not up for rookie of the year.”

At his locker after the game, Rogers spoke the way only a 41-year-old can. “Last game I was feeling really good, and I saw I was throwing 91-92 miles an hour. You’re tempted to keep doing that. Pitching harder. But I know for me that’s not a recipe for success.”

How many guys slow themselves down to be a better pitcher? That’s the savvy you get with Rogers. He has been, let’s face it, everything the Tigers could have hoped so far. Finally, a high-ticket free agent worth his price.

He didn’t get the win. But he got the win, if you get what I mean.

The hustling slugger

Which brings us to Marcus Thames, the designated hitter who didn’t get a hit. Thames has had a terrific offensive year so far, but he had a goose egg for this series against the Sox. Hitless on Tuesday. Hitless on Wednesday. And hitless on Thursday.

But in the seventh, with one out, he drew a walk.

And on the next play, Craig Monroe hit a ground ball that looked like a sure double play, end of inning, except Thames came sweeping into second baseman Tadahito Iguchi and took him out the way a pulled tablecloth takes out the plates.

Iguchi hit the earth. No throw. No double play.

Next at bat, Chris Shelton doubled to left-center, and Monroe, who would have been dead meat had it not been for Thames’ slide, came around with the winning run.

“Where do you learn to do that?” Thames was asked. “Do you practice it?”

“You can’t practice it, it just happens;” he said. “I was just trying to go in … make a little contact with him. … I weigh about 220 so if I can get a little weight on him …”

He never saw the fruits of his labor. But when he stood up and heard the crowd roar, he knew he had done something good.

There were all kinds of aggressive plays like that Thursday: Curtis Granderson, with a leadoff single, hopping around trying to steal second right away, Shelton attempting to lay down a drag bunt, reliever Joel Zumaya, with Joe Crede in his sights, blowing a strike three fastball past him for the last out of an inning.

Three games. Two wins. It’s only July, but the Tigers are more ahead than they were when the White Sox arrived. The All-Star break does not seem to have slowed them.

With crowds of reporters around Rogers and Thames, the no-decision pitcher and the hitless designated hitter, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch entered the locker room pretty much unnoticed after the game. At one point, he mentioned to pitcher Todd Jones, “Today’s my birthday.”

Happy birthday. I don’t know how old he is. But, like a lot of Detroit baseball fans, he’s younger today.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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