Thursday, October 12, 2006

Every Tiger Bearing Fangs

OAKLAND, Calif. - When Placido Polanco, the former Phillie-turned-invaluable table-setter for the Detroit Tigers, singled to start the fourth inning, he was on his way to a 3-for-4 effort tonight.

Detroit, happy to draft along behind yet another unsung player-turned-October hero, was on its way to a 8-5 victory over the Oakland Athletics.

Polanco & Co. had provided enough offense to overcome the A's vaunted pitching. They had overcome Milton Bradley's two-homer explosion. And because they did, they came away with an edge of two games to none in the American League Championship Series.

The ravenous Tigers had devoured what had been Oakland's home-field advantage. Now the best-of-seven series now moves to Detroit, where the next three games are scheduled this weekend.

The Tigers' ace, Kenny Rogers (1-0, 0.00 ERA in the playoffs) will take the mound Friday to try to pull Detroit to within one victory of its first World Series since 1984. He will be opposed by A's righthander Rich Harden, who has yet to pitch in the playoffs.

Polanco, now 11 for 25 in six playoff games thus far, is one of only seven Tigers who had experienced the postseason before this October.

After tonight, no one will dare call any of the Tigers novices.

That is how well-rounded Detroit's attack continued to look against A's pitching.

Leftfielder Craig Monroe, designated hitter Alexis Gomez and third baseman Brandon Inge - the seventh, eighth and ninth batters in Jim Leyland's lineup - drove in seven runs themselves in the first six innings.

"When you start to get down to the bottom, you think you can kind of mess around with these guys," said Monroe. "well, it doesn't matter. The guys definitely believe., and we like being down there. There's no break in our lineup, top to bottom."

Gomez, a player'd been designated for assignment twice, made the first postseason appearance of his career, memorable, accounting for four of those runs, thanks in part to a two-run home run in the sixth.

"today they give me the biggest chance I had in my life, in my career," Gomez said. "I've been in situations that I go down, go up [from the minors], but I never put my head down.

"In all the time that I got sitting down, I said I've got to be ready for when you need me."

He was. And that was not quite the result sought by the A's, a team that desperately needed some of the young Tigers to start acting their age. If not, Oakland knew, the consequences could be immense in a series in which Detroit had already filleted the A's ace, Barry Zito.

Justin Verlander, Detroit's 23-year-old rookie-of-the-year candidate, initially seemed to be Oakland's man.

The righthander, making his second start of the postseason, did so in poor fashion. The A's had a run in before he had secured two outs in the first inning, thanks to a Mark Kotsay double, a wild pitch and a Bradley single.

But in keeping with Detroit's now-familiar recurring theme of October, the run proved to be no problem. The Tigers erased it by the second inning on a Carlos Guillen double and a Monroe sacrifice fly.

Things would worsen for Esteban Loaiza two innings later, and not just because the Tigers kept coming at him with the tenacity that belied postseason rookie jitters.

The third inning was bad for the A's starter because he once again could not thrive after being given yet another lead, 3-1, on a double by Kotsay and a two-run homer by Bradley (a prelude to his seventh-inning solo).

Polanco led off the fourth with a single and the merry-go-round was set in motion. Before Loaiza could halt the Tigers' dizzying rotation around the basepaths, four runs scored.

The rally involved the usual suspects responsible for making Detroit arguably the most balanced attack in the postseason. That much was evidenced by what followed Polanco's hit.

Magglio OrdoƱez, single.

Ivan Rodriguez, one-out walk.

Monroe, RBI single.

Gomez, two-run single.

Inge, the Game 1 hero who had homered and driven in two runs off Zito?

Sacrifice fly.

Because they could strike that quickly and, unlike Oakland, make the lead hold, the Tigers have two wins in the books.

All they need are two more in the five games left in the series to secure a World Series berth.

The Tigers couldn't have returned home in better shape. And the A's couldn't have hit the road in a bigger state of shock.

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