Kenny Rogers may have been Detroit’s biggest postseason hero last year. When he makes his 2007 debut, though, he’ll do so at the site of his biggest playoff meltdown.
After missing nearly the first three months of the season due to a blood clot in his throwing shoulder, Rogers returns Friday night when his Tigers open a three-game interleague set with the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field.
In his first year with Detroit in 2006, Rogers enjoyed one of the finest seasons of his 18-year major league career. The left-hander went 17-8 with a 3.84 ERA in regular-season play, then won all three of his postseason starts without allowing a run as the Tigers won their first AL pennant since 1984.
The 42-year-old Rogers was 2-0 with a 2.05 ERA in spring training this year before going on the DL for the first time since 2001. He threw a bullpen session Monday, but remains publicly cautious.
“Until I’m on the mound, I’m not taking anything for granted,” Rogers told the Tigers’ official Web site.
When he does take the mound, Rogers will be doing so for the first time since Game 6 of the 1999 NL Championship Series - possibly the lowest point of his career. Then pitching for the New York Mets, Rogers walked Andruw Jones with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 11th inning to give the Braves a 10-9 victory and the NL title.
That contest may never have reached extra innings if John Smoltz (8-3, 2.84 ERA) hadn’t given up an uncharacteristic four runs in one-third of an inning of relief for Atlanta. Smoltz also faltered in his only career start versus the Tigers - a 12-4 loss on Sept. 3, 1997, in which he gave up eight runs and 10 hits in 3 1-3 innings.
The 40-year-old right-hander has been excellent this season, though, going 6-2 with a 2.05 ERA over his past nine starts despite shoulder soreness. After having his last start pushed back one day because of the shoulder pain, Smoltz allowed only two runs over six innings Saturday at Cleveland, striking out seven without a walk to defeat the Indians 6-2.
“He was throwing 95 miles per hour, with 89 mile per hour sliders from hell,” Cleveland’s Paul Byrd said. “I would love for my shoulder to feel bad and take that out to the mound. He shut us down. He had great stuff. That was the dominating John Smoltz we know.”
Detroit’s offense enters this series on a roll, while Atlanta’s lineup is scuffling. The Tigers (42-29) have scored seven runs or more in all four games of their current winning streak, which has moved them into a tie with Cleveland for the AL Central lead.
The Tigers scored 32 runs in a three-game sweep at Washington, improving to 5-1 on their nine-game road trip.
Detroit’s Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen both are riding eight-game hitting streaks. Ordonez is batting .552 (16-for-29) during his run, while Guillen is hitting .464 (13-for-28) with four homers.
Atlanta, meanwhile, suffered shutout losses in the last two games of its home series with Boston, including an 11-0 rout Wednesday night—the first consecutive shutout defeats for the Braves (38-35) since April 2-3, 2003, against Montreal.
Jones has been slumping more than any other Atlanta batter, with no hits in his last 18 at-bats to drop his season average to .202. Manager Bobby Cox gave his center fielder the night off Wednesday, but expects to have him back in the lineup to face the Tigers.
“It’s not a surprise,” said Jones, a .264 career hitter. “By sitting out and watching the game from the bench, I can get my mind away from it.”
The Tigers have won five of nine meetings all-time against the Braves. The clubs have split six games in Atlanta.