DETROIT (AP)—Kenny Rogers stood alone near the mound and soaked in the cheers. He had stared down his past and all that pinstriped power, and now it was time to enjoy a night like no other.
And as Tigers fans saluted him by singing “Ken-ny, Ken-ny”, Rogers touched his heart with both hands.
“I wanted this game as much as I ever wanted any in my life,” he said.
In a ballpark normally locked up by October, the Tigers got 7 2-3 shutout innings from Rogers and outplayed New York in a 6-0 victory on Friday night in Game 3, pushing Detroit within one win of shocking the Yankees into an early winter.
The 41-year-old Rogers, one of the few Detroit pitchers who doesn’t fire 100 mph fastballs, used every pitch in his stash to blank a revamped Yankees’ lineup for his first win in 10 postseason games.
As if conjuring the spirit of former Tigers phenom Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, Rogers spent much of the evening talking to himself between pitches. It was unusual behavior on a night when a full moon hung over the ballpark.
“I was probably more emotional than I should have been,” Rogers. “That is by far the greatest lineup I’ve ever faced. I just wanted to win for everyone here.”
Rogers’ first win over the Yankees since 1993 came at the perfect time for the Tigers, who were playing their first postseason game in Comerica Park, the first playoff game in The Motor City since 1987 at Tiger Stadium.
Last weekend, the Tigers, baseball’s darlings during the regular season, had a chance to wrap up their first division title in 19 years and secure home-field advantage in the first round of the AL playoffs.
Instead, they flopped. Detroit got swept by Kansas City and in the process the Tigers gift wrapped the AL Central title for Minnesota and wound up as a wild card with a playoff appointment in New York.
Well, whatever magic dust that carried the Tigers through the regular season is blowing in the Michigan wind again. Detroit leads the series 2-1 and needs just one win to stun the AL East champions.
“We really haven’t finished everything yet,” first baseman Sean Casey said. “We have a 2-1 lead, but that doesn’t mean anything.”
Detroit, which left New York on Thursday with a split after rallying to win Game 2, scored three runs in the second inning off Randy Johnson and two more in the sixth. And, Rogers, whose career highlights include a perfect game in 1994 for Texas and an embarrassing run-in with a TV cameraman, made them stand up.
Rogers, who played for New York in 1996-97, confounded the Yankees with fastballs, sinkers, changeups and curves. The left-hander struck out eight—his most since June 13—and walked two.
“For this one night, I think he got it all together, and he was probably as determined as you’ll ever see anybody pitch a ballgame,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.
After striking out Bobby Abreu for the second out in the eighth, Rogers was lifted by Leyland and received a long, loud ovation on his walk to the Tigers dugout.
This Rogers wasn’t the one who had two spotty seasons in New York, where he won a World Series ring in 1996. After that, he pinballed around the majors with a stop in Oakland, with the New York Mets, two stints in Texas and a stopover in Minnesota.
“I’m not afraid to fail,” he said. “I know I’m 40-something and don’t have a lot of talent left anyway, but I do believe in myself.”
Casey had two RBIs and Curtis Granderson hit a solo homer as the Tigers, who lost 119 games in 2003, moved within one win of taking a best-of-5 series few thought they had a chance in.
The Yankees’ offense sputtered again, and this time it wasn’t all the fault of Alex Rodriguez, who said: “There’s tension in this clubhouse.”
A-Rod was still AWOL following an 0-for-3 performance that dropped him to 1-for-11 in the series. New York’s $25 million man is batting just .116 (5-for-43) in his last 12 postseason games and hasn’t drive in a run in his past 11.
Citing Bernie Williams’ stronger numbers—a .353 average with two homers— against Rogers, Yankees manager Joe Torre shook up baseball’s bash brothers from the Bronx by using the 38-year-old as his DH while resting first baseman Gary Sheffield.
Jason Giambi, New York’s DH in the first two games at Yankee Stadium, played first and Rodriguez, who was dropped to sixth in the lineup for Games 1 and 2, was back in the cleanup spot.
The shakeup didn’t stir a thing. The Yankees went 0-for-18 with men on base.
Williams and Giambi 0-for-3 were 0-for-3 and Sheffield sat on the bench with a blue-hooded sweat shirt pulled up over his head. The Yankees, who haven’t scored in 14 innings, went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position after going 1-for-8 in Game 2.
“That’s not the Kenny Rogers I remember,” Rodriguez said. “He was phenomenal tonight. He was definitely on an emotional high, which isn’t how he usually is. It was amazing.”
Johnson required an epidural shot in his back a week ago to ease the pain from a herniated disc. On a chilly 50-degree night, the Tigers were the ones needling him with timely hits and aggressive baserunning.
The Big Unit allowed five runs and eight hits in 5 2-3 innings, losing his eighth straight division series decision.
“I kept us in it for five innings,” he said. “At least I felt I did that.”
From the moment beloved Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline threw a strike with the ceremonial first pitch, Detroit fans were rocking the way they used to in Octobers past at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, about one mile from the Tigers’ new home.
Leyland was worried about his team’s focus but the Tigers, who have 18 players making their postseason debuts, were locked in. In the second, they strung together three straight singles off Johnson—the last by Casey—for a 1-0 lead.
New York nearly got out of the inning but Curtis Granderson beat out a potential double play as Ivan Rodriguez scored.
That should have been it, but the Yankees blew a second shot at getting Granderson, who was caught leaning by Johnson but slid into second under Giambi’s high throw.
It was the Tigers’ first postseason win at home since Oct. 10, 1987, 7-6 over the Twins. … Wright and Leyland last crossed paths in the postseason 1997. The right-hander started for Cleveland in Game 7 against Leyland’s Florida Marlins, who won their first title in extra innings. “He has my ring,” Wright said. … Granderson has two homers in the series, matching the most for a Detroit player since Chet Lemon in ’87.