DETROIT – In the top of the ninth, in a batting cage far beneath Comerica Park, a baseball player named Don Kelly bowed his head on Sunday and prayed.
He prayed for a Tigers hit in the bottom of the ninth. He prayed for Miguel Cabrera to get on base. He prayed for the Oakland Athletics to walk Prince Fielder. And then he prayed to be that man at the plate, bat in his hand, bases loaded, rain falling down, ready to swing at a Grant Balfour fastball roaring toward his hands.
And then it all happened, just as Kelly imagined on that batting cage chair. Visualization is important to a man who lives on the fringe as a baseball lifer. Many nights he spends the entire game locked on the bench, picturing scenarios, trying to see himself in the biggest moments, expecting success. So as the inning played out just as he imagined, he was filled with a strange calm as he walked to the plate.
It was only a sacrifice fly he hit to win the game, what the baseball people call a lazy fly ball that would fall far short of the wall but well deep enough to get Omar Infante home with the winning run in a 5-4 victory. More important it was a victory that put Detroit up 2-0 in this best-of-five American League Division Series. And because of that, the Tigers swarmed Kelly as he stood near first base.
Somewhere in the euphoria, Kelly wrapped his arms around the gargantuan Fielder and lifted him up.
Which might have been crazier than Don Kelly winning the game.
"I don't know why everybody's so surprised by that," Kelly said of picking up Fielder.
Or maybe he meant being the hero.
The game Kelly won was an odd one. It featured a dropped fly ball by Oakland center fielder Coco Crisp that allowed two Detroit runs to score. It had a home run by the A's Josh Reddick who had already struck out six times in this series. And, perhaps, craziest of all, there was the kiss Tigers relief pitcher Al Alburquerque placed on the ball when he snagged a grounder back to the mound and before he tossed it to first base for the final out in the top of the ninth.
"We wondered if the ball loved him back," Kelly later said laughing.
But most improbable was the fact Kelly was even in position to win the game. He has drifted through the game for years, not good enough to be a regular player but still the kind managers love. His teammates say he is the first one to the clubhouse, the one who runs, who works out, who stands forever in the batting cage trying to find some way of proving he can matter to a team.
Last October, Kelly hit a home run in Game 5 of the ALDS to help beat the New York Yankees. After that game, Detroit manager Jim Leyland started to weep as he talked about Kelly.
Earlier this year, the Tigers sent Kelly to the minor leagues. He spent much of the year there, in Toledo – a place he had already played twice before – watching Tigers games on TV, rooting for old teammates and dreaming of the day he would be back. Though he had been a major leaguer for parts of five seasons and had that home run against the Yankees, he did not dispute the demotion. He accepted it as a part of this career that rolls up and down.
"When you're drafted you don't think you're not going to make the big leagues until you're 27," Kelly said. "Nothing is handed to you."
But now he is here, in the playoffs again and nothing is bigger. The other day he was talking to his brother-in-law, Pirates third baseman Neil Walker, and he attempted to explain the joy of these games. "It's just a different level of baseball," he finally told Walker.
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Kelly probably shouldn't have been in the game. He entered the inning as a pinch runner for designated hitter Delmon Young after Young drew a leadoff walk with the Tigers down 4-3. Kelly scored the tying run on a wild pitch, then spent the top of the ninth in the cage with fellow reserve infielder Ramon Santiago, smacking slow fastballs and imagining what lay ahead in the bottom of the ninth.
"You know, he's the nicest guy on the team," Santiago later said in the Tigers' joyous clubhouse.
And maybe he was also a fitting hero – a man who has battled to be here, whose presence was anything but guaranteed and who prayed for a chance to just stand in the rain and hit a fly ball that would win the game. Somehow he is like these Tigers: overlooked in the playoffs, a lost story behind the Yankees' glamour and the improbable Orioles and A's.
Perhaps, too, he is exactly what you need in postseason baseball.
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