DETROIT -- If this American League Championship Series signifies the redemptive powers of baseball, demonstrating how a club that lost 119 games three years ago is now the darling of the sport, then its poster boy is the mercurial veteran pitcher who took the mound for the Detroit Tigers yesterday.
To some, Tigers left-hander Kenny Rogers will always be the example of spoiled athletes gone wrong because he hit a cameraman in Texas last year.
To others, he's the guy who flunked out both in past postseasons and in New York City, proving he wasn't a big-stage pitcher.
To the screaming, shivering, towel-waving sellout crowd at Comerica Park yesterday, however, Rogers, was heroic.
His absolute mastery of a suddenly toothless Oakland Athletics offense led the Tigers to a 3-0 win and a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven ALCS. One more win and the once punch-lined Tigers would advance to the World Series for the first time since 1984. One more win and punching bag Rogers would get there for the first time since 1996.
"He's an unbelievable pitcher and he has kind of turned the tide now. He has something to prove out there," Tigers rookie starter Justin Verlander said. "A lot of people had doubts about him in the second half, and he turned those doubts around. They had doubts about the postseason and he turned that around. He is out there on a mission."
For the second time in a week, Rogers, 41, mystified his opponent, mixing a sharp curveball with changeups and fastballs. He allowed just two singles, walked two and hit slugger Frank Thomas, who again went hitless and is now 0-for-10 in the series. That was the extent of the A's offense - no real threats and only one runner in scoring position all game.
"I believe in myself. I believe I can make pitches and I'll find a way," Rogers said. "It's the mentality I have."
Combined with his 7 2/3 shutout innings against the New York Yankees on Oct. 6, he has now thrown 15 scoreless innings this postseason after allowing 20 earned runs in 20 1/3 innings in nine previous playoff games.
Not bad for a virtually ignored free agent who ended up matching a career high with 17 wins this season. Not bad for someone who turns 42 in November, and made his professional debut the year before Verlander was born.
"He's a guy that a lot of people would say is past his prime and he is on his way out," said fellow rotation-mate Nate Robertson. "He ain't on his way out. He is right in the middle of it."
When Rogers walked off the mound with one out in the eighth inning, the 41,669 fans, who continually chanted "Kenny," rose to their feet. He tipped his cap, then turned in a full circle. It was a snapshot of Rogers 2.0, a fist-pumping, chattering, animated new version of the formerly emotionless hurler.
"I'm really trying to use that emotion and use that aggressiveness and feed off of it, and it's making me a better pitcher," Rogers said.
Rogers starred, but the players behind him set the tone. With one on and no outs in the top of the first, third baseman Brandon Inge dived into the stands to grab a foul ball. In the bottom of the first, Craig Monroe and Curtis Granderson completed a perfect hit-and-run to set up first and third with no out. And Placido Polanco made a hard slide into second base to break up a double play while Monroe was scoring the Tigers' second run against a rusty Rich Harden.
Harden, who had pitched just 11 2/3 innings since June 5 because of a sprained elbow ligament, threw seven balls to start the two-run first. He eventually settled down, only allowing a bases-empty homer to Monroe in the fifth. But the game was over in the first.
"Inge's catch takes momentum out right there," Granderson said. "The takeout slide didn't do anything great, but at the same time it let the crowd know we are ready to play no matter how cold it was. We wanted to play."
Game-time temperature was 42 degrees, and the mercury slid down while the swirling wind picked up. But it didn't seem to affect Rogers and the Tigers, who became the 29th team to take a 3-0 lead in postseason history. The Boston Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS are the only team to bounce back from that deficit. Of the previous 28 with a 3-0 lead, 22 went on to win Game 4.
"The big thing is focus. Focusing about today is today and tomorrow is tomorrow," Granderson said. "We can't look at what's going to happen beyond now. That's been the situation all season."