TIGERS STARE DOWN ROCKET’S RED GLARE

The old man on the mound had been masterful, dominating, placing pitches as if he’d been throwing them all season instead of just a few weeks out of retirement. But he was leaving now, growling, cursing, glaring at the umpire, with no runs to support him and two baserunners he had created with ball fours. It was the seventh inning, under deepening blue skies, and one thing was certain on this summer night in this summer of Detroit baseball: the Tigers were not losing to Roger Clemens.

But it might be the other way around.

Take out your red marker and circle this one. On a sellout night, against a pitcher who had every right to awe them, the Tigers held their gaze until the Rocket blinked. They matched his shutout innings with their own. And minutes after he left the field, they sent his two baserunners home on a Craig Monroe double to tag him with a defeat and mark another game that leaves the baseball world shaking its head and saying, “Who ARE these guys?”

The Tigers now have 53 wins against 25 losses. They have, in the last five days, clobbered the reigning National League Cy Young winner (Chris Carpenter) and chased the winningest pitcher alive (Clemens). And they did it the way Jim Leyland has been preaching it all season: you want to defeat the best, you have to compete with the best. No intimidation. No waiting on luck. Take them on, bare knuckles – or else, as Leyland said after this win, “you say ‘Oh, my god, that’s Roger Clemens, and by the time you realize he puts his pants one leg at a time, it’s the seventh inning.”

Tigers 4, Astros 0.

Next?

Clemens had fiery control

Not that Clemens wasn’t impressive. He started the game with four straight groundouts, didn’t allow a hit until the third inning, and faced no real scoring threats through the sixth, which he needed only 66 pitches to reach. Remember, he decided to play baseball this year, what, only about five minutes ago? His fastball was in the low 90s when he started the game right up until the time he exited it, and his control was like, well, Roger Clemens: The first time the Tigers put a man in scoring position, he struck out the next two batters.

Considering that less than three weeks ago, Clemens was throwing in a place called Whataburger Stadium, wearing a Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks uniform, his advancement has been incredible. Hey, he’s 43 years old! Most guys that age can’t even touch their toes.

“He couldn’t have pitched any better,” said Astros manager Phil Garner, “playing against the hottest team on the planet.”

The planet? Well, that’s hard to measure. But Clemens, who is holding back time, was certainly facing a team whose time is coming. Pitcher Nate Robertson held Houston at bay inning after inning, squeezing out of several jams, keeping the goose eggs even. “He gives up four or five runs against Clemens, you got no chance,” Leyland said. “He was masterful tonight.”

And when the night was over, the Tigers had their 10th shutout of the year, Robertson had his eighth win – and a souvenir. “I requested the lineup card for the night,” he said. “It’s something to hold onto. …

“But beyond that … the big story is what this team is doing. We got something special going on right here.”

Tigers had quiet confidence

Did you ever think that sentence would be an understatement? The Tigers are becoming a team that you expect to deliver clutch hits in the late innings, that you expect to play opportunistic baseball, that you expect to win, even against the biggest names.

“Honestly, weren’t you a little bit in awe of facing Clemens for the first time?” someone asked Curtis Granderson, who had never done it before. “Now I am,” he said. “After it’s over. But not during the game. Otherwise I would already be defeated.”

The Tigers sound a lot older than they look, and they play a lot older than they are. It is still June. This is still baseball. And yes, this was just one game – on paper, it counts no more than any other.

But it was also another Goliath toppled, another dragon stared down. It was the old man’s stage, but it was the young guys’ night.

And it won’t be their last.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.www.freep.com/mitch.

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