Tigers Close in on World Series Dream

Saturday, October 14th 2006, 7:52 am
By: News On 6

DETROIT (AP) _ From the very first day of spring training, Jim Leyland demanded that his Detroit Tigers walk with the swagger of World Series champions. One more win, and this once-lost franchise will get a chance to play for that golden trophy.

Kenny Rogers pitched the game of his life for the second straight week while the Tigers backed him with their bats, gloves and legs, beating the Oakland Athletics 3-0 on a frosty Friday to take a 3-0 lead in the AL championship series.

Pushing aside two decades of frustration and failure, plus a late-season collapse that threatened to wreck their year, the wild-card Tigers made it look easy _ just like the 1984 club that stormed to the title.

Long gone was the embarrassment of 2003, when Detroit dropped 119 games.

``With what we've done now, it feels like that season has finally been wiped off the map,'' third baseman Brandon Inge said.

On a cold day, the thought that Detroit was on the brink of the World Series sent a chill through the fans packing Comerica Park.

``That's our goal. That's what we play for,'' Rogers said. ``I can't say enough for the way the guys played behind me.''

Leyland made another lineup hunch pay off Friday as the team that started the year with five straight wins posted its sixth playoff win in a row.The Athletics sense they're up against something special, too.

``We're running into a better team, and they're knocking down everybody in their path,'' A's third baseman Eric Chavez said. ``It's not frustrating, they're better than we are.''

Added slugger Frank Thomas: ``That's a whole new team over there right now. That's not the team I've been battling for years.''

Putting aside temperatures in the low 40s that forced both teams to put flame-throwing blowers in their dugouts, Rogers shut out the Athletics on two mere singles over 7 1-3 innings.

He drew a thunderous ovation when he left and took off his cap, waved it to the crowd and then spun around for all to see. The fans also got into the act, twirling white towels.

``You could really see the emotion building late in the game,'' Tigers leadoff man Curtis Granderson said.

Craig Monroe homered, Placido Polanco delivered two more hits off losing pitcher Rich Harden and Tigers closer Todd Jones finished for his second save of the series.

The Tigers led 2-0 after the first inning, and at this rate, nothing seems able to stop them. Want evidence? Leyland pulled Game 2 star Alexis Gomez, put Omar Infante into his first postseason game and the DH singled and walked.

``I think it's a matter of having confidence in all your players,'' Leyland said. ``And I think there's a little luck that goes along with it.''

Certainly the Tigers' luck didn't change on Friday the 13th. And, a day after the earliest measured snowfall in the city's history, the weather was no problem, though it helped the game was switched from nighttime to day.

The A's get one last chance Saturday in Game 4, with Dan Haren starting against former Oakland draft pick Jeremy Bonderman. Only once in baseball history has a team rallied from an 0-3 deficit in the postseason, with Boston doing it against the New York Yankees in 2004.

``For most of the year, the Detroit Tigers were the best in baseball,'' Athletics general manager Billy Beane said. ``They seem to be, at this point, at least in the first three games, playing like that.''

Thomas remained hitless in the series, yet the Big Hurt wasn't the lone Oakland hitter to feel the Big Chill against the 41-year-old Rogers.

Coming off his first victory in a previously awful playoff career, Rogers reprised his role as an October ace. He blanked the Yankees for 7 2-3 innings in the first round and the A's never did much against him, either.

Rogers was not nearly as animated as he was in the win over the Yankees. He saved his reaction for the end, thanking the 41,669 fans with a wave of the cap, making sure to salute every corner of the park.

``It was no less emotional,'' Rogers said. ``But I just wanted to play my game. We've played great all year long. I take nothing for granted.''

Rogers was aggressive, part of a personal plan this month: Encourage his inner emotions, rather than trying to keep them in check.

He certainly was in control on the mound. Rogers threw 13 straight first-pitch strikes starting in the first inning, and walked two overall.

Fernando Rodney got the last two outs in the eighth, and Jones pitched a perfect ninth to complete the combined two-hitter.

Rogers' lone jam came in the first after Jason Kendall led off with a single and Thomas was hit by a pitch with two outs. But Rogers retired Jay Payton on a grounder, and went on to strike out six.

``He's a professional pitcher, that's what he is,'' Leyland said. ``There's guys with better stuff, there's guys that will light up the radar gun a little more.

``But nobody could've pitched better than Kenny in these last two outings.''

Harden grew up in western Canada, playing baseball in sleet and freezing rain, and was the only Oakland player wearing short sleeves. It was 42 degrees at gametime, the lowest for a postseason game since it was 38 in Cleveland at the 1997 World Series.

No telling whether the cold bothered Harden. His control sure did, though.

Harden started off by throwing seven straight balls, and Monroe's perfect hit-and-run single put runners at the corners with no outs.

Polanco followed with an RBI single, sending Monroe scampering to third and bringing pitching coach Curt Young out for a visit. Magglio Ordonez drove in another run with a force-play grounder.

Harden walked the bases loaded in the second, escaping when he struck out Monroe. Polanco doubled his next time up, making him 6-for-6 lifetime against Harden.

A's center fielder Mark Kotsay saved Harden in the fourth with two outstanding catches, rushing in for Ramon Santiago's liner and sprinting to right-center for Granderson's shot about 420 feet from home plate.

Granderson also turned in a nice play, tracking down Chavez's deep drive to right-center. The long outs by Chavez and Granderson showed why former Tigers outfielder Bobby Higginson christened the stadium ``Comerica National Park.''

Monroe homered leading off the fifth to make it 3-0. With Rogers on the mound, that was plenty.

``Just amazing, another outstanding performance by Mr. Rogers today,'' Polanco said.

Rogers was 10-1 against the A's since 2002, and had beaten his former club more in that span than any active pitcher.

He added another victory with a win that he would certainly rank right up there with the perfect game he once pitched for Texas.

``This franchise, this city, has just welcomed me, and I'm just trying to reward the faith they had in me,'' Rogers said.