YANKEES, GO HOME

In the end, the mighty Yankees were grumpy giants staring at a broken beanstalk, as the Tigers went running down the playoff trail. They didn’t tiptoe past the richest roster in baseball. They stomped it, kicked it, stole its jewelry, then waved good-bye in a spray of champagne as they danced away carrying their manager on their shoulders.

Yankees go home.

Tigers go on.

Read it and blink.

“This is a great thing that happened to us,” exclaimed Jeremy Bonderman, the star of the day, who blanked New York for six innings en route to an 8-3 clincher and a ticket to the American League Championship Series.

The ALCS? Read it and blink. Read it and shake your head. But read it and remember just three years ago, when this team was in danger of sinking below oblivion – because remembering is what made this happen.

Because Bonderman remembers when he lost 19 games in that dismal season, and they stopped pitching him because they didn’t want him to be a 20-game loser.

Because Kenny Rogers remembers all the years he was called a playoff failure, and he’s too old to wear that tag anymore.

Because Jim Leyland remembers how grateful he felt when the Tigers, the lowly Tigers, called to offer him a job last October. And here he was Saturday evening, kissing his wife and kids through the backstop and being carried off the field on the shoulders of his players, like the father of the bride, like the Grandpa of Happiness.

Because you play with your body, but you win with your mind, the Detroit Tigers have won their first playoff series since the magical season of 1984, when a hairy Kirk Gibson was thundering around the basepaths. And they have a date for the next round – one stop from the World Series – starting Tuesday in Oakland.

Read it and blink.

Great pitching and timely hitting

Now, it’s true, this team may not look like the team that blew the Central Division with a bellyflop last weekend but, then, that team didn’t look like the one that delighted Detroit so much of the spring and summer.

Who knows? Maybe you get nine lives in baseball. Whatever life the Tigers have been on since the fourth inning of Game 2 at Yankee Stadium, they don’t want to move on. This is already heaven, right here, watching their pitchers (Rogers, Bonderman, Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya, Todd Jones) return to magnificent dominance, watching their hitters take patient advantage of every opening, watching their fans delirious with the return of October fever.

“This is a great group,” Bonderman said. “We hit a scuff in the road, but a good team will bounce back. And we have a great team.”

On Saturday at Comerica Park, with Bonderman pitching a perfect game into the sixth inning, the Tigers hung runs on the scoreboard with surprising ease. It was 3-0 after the second and 4-0 after the third and 7-0 after the fifth and 8-0 after the sixth. Magglio Ordonez had a home run. Craig Monroe had a home run. The music thumped and the fans rocked and it had the feel of one of those NBA blowouts, in which every basket becomes a celebratory dunk.

The final out, a grounder by Robinson Cano to Placido Polanco, sent the Tigers exploding from the dugout into a huddle that kept moving – it didn’t stop at the mound, it was too explosive for that, it kept going to second base, to the outfield, back in again.

Then the Tigers did a victory lap, and several of them hopped on the dugouts and hosed the fans with champagne.

But when the fountains finished exploding and the booze finished dousing and the Tigers began thinking about the West Coast, their next stop on the Fairy Tale Express, the reality of this series was as startling as it was stark:

In four games, one more than the minimum required, Detroit beat the heavily favored Yankees, beat them close and beat them far, beat them with bats and with pitches, beat them with hunger and fresh-scrubbed enthusiasm.

In doing so, the Tigers seemed as young and light as a barefoot kid heading to buy an ice cream, while the New Yorkers looked as heavy and troubled as a banker with millions’ worth of shaky loans.

Tigers go on.

Yankees go home.

Read it and blink.

Bondy’s redemption

Saturday’s victory was a tapestry of effort, but it was stitched, first and last, by Bonderman. The reticent young pitcher, who was drafted into baseball when he was an 11th-grader, has, at 23, already seen more than his share of disappointment. His rookie year, they had to protect him from losing 20 games. Last weekend, he was The Man Who Couldn’t Finish, blowing a 6-0 lead and allowing Kansas City to come back to knock the Tigers off the Central Division throne on the season’s final day.

“I stunk,” he said of that performance.

But six days after being asked to win the division, he was asked to win the division series. And the turnaround was everything the Tigers have been about. Bonderman completely neutered the mighty Yankees for six innings, twice striking out Gary Sheffield, the cleanup hitter; striking out Jorge Posada, who had been hitting .500 in the series; striking out the normally unflappable Derek Jeter, getting him to chase a bad outside pitch.

While the Tigers were taking rapt advantage of Jaret Wright – not the guy you want to have to depend on to save your season – Bonderman was busy hanging the Yankees over the snapping jaws of New York tabloid writers, turning their ground balls into outs and their fly balls into harmless catches.

As Rogers had done with his shutout innings the night before, Bonderman gave his teammates the cushion to swing freely, to play from ahead.

And that’s what you call fun.

“Kenny and I talked before his start,” Bonderman said. “And I told him, ‘You go out and do your thing and I’ll do mine and we’ll take care of this.’ Kenny did it. And I just had to live up to my word.”

That he did. When he finished his night’s work, after 8 1/3 innings and 99 pitches (70 for strikes), he came off the mound and, uncharacteristically, waved his hat and shook it at the crowd. He was greeted in the dugout with a bear hug by – who else? – Rogers.

The guy who was too old to wear the loser tag and the guy who was too young to accept it, locked in an embrace.

How you gonna beat that?

Yankees go home.

Tigers go on.

Snapshots of a series

“Did you think this would happen when you took the job?” someone asked Leyland in the postgame pandemonium.

“No, not this year,” he said. “I thought we’d get better … but I thought, for sure, it would take a year or two.”

Instead, people still are scratching their heads. Detroit outscored the Yankees in this series, 22-14, and outpitched them three out of four times, beating veterans Mike Mussina and Randy Johnson along the way. But the series cannot be understood by numbers. This was a contrast in all that money can and cannot buy:

Here is what money can buy: the Yankees’ magnificent roster, which has cost more than a billion dollars over the last six years and has now finished three of those seasons with a first-round exit and none with a World Series crown.

Here is what money cannot buy: Rogers choking up as he talked about winning his first playoff game at age 41; Leyland choking up when he talked about his players defying all odds to make the playoffs; Al Kaline, soaked in champagne, cigar in his mouth, doing a shimmy on a plastic-covered locker-room dance floor; and Sean Casey, camera in hand, filming his family at the celebration, still remembering how happy he was to get the call on trade deadline day that he was being dealt to Detroit.

Here is what money also cannot buy: the exuberance of a Comerica Park crowd that had almost forgotten what it meant to win a game in October, a high-pitched energy that drew standing ovations time after time Saturday and finished with what looked like 40,000 orange towels being swung like propellers, until you half expected the stadium to lift off the ground.

“Spontaneous stuff is the best stuff,” Leyland said.

You want to hear something funny? Leyland couldn’t sleep the night before this one. He kept seeing Yankees coming to the plate.

“I was lying in bed with my wife and I was saying we have to face that lineup again in about 20 hours,” he said. “It’s never-ending. … You can have nightmares.

“I was up at four o’clock eating M&M’s.”

He can wash ’em down with bubbly now – then hit the pillow soundly.

Yankees go home.

Tigers go on.

If this is a dream, don’t you dare wake Detroit up.

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 freep.com/mitch.

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