Friday, October 13, 2006

Rogers Personifies Dominating Ace

DETROIT - Just as a bat has a sweet spot, so do major-league pitching rotations.
It's the turn teams depend on when they need their sagest, most undaunted arm to dominate and inspire.
In Detroit, that spot belongs to Kenny Rogers, the veteran pitcher who has refused to allow the opposition so much as a postseason run in two starts.
Rogers stretched his scoreless streak to 15 innings in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series yesterday against Oakland, allowing the mesmerized Athletics just two hits over 71/3 innings.
When sizzling second baseman Placido Polanco delivered a first-inning RBI single, Rogers had all he would need for what ultimately became a 3-0 victory at Comerica Park.
Because Rogers put the Athletics' bats in an even deeper freeze than the one that gripped Detroit yesterday, a storied franchise pulled within one victory of its first World Series since 1984.
The A's will send righthander Dan Haren (14-13) to the mound todaycq to try to prevent a sweep from the best-of-seven series in four games.
Detroit will counter with righty Jeremy Bonderman (14-8).
Of the previous 28 league championship series best-of-sevens to start 3-0, 22 have resulted in four-game sweeps. Only the 2004 Boston Red Sox survived such a deficit (against the New York Yankees).
It will be the second time Rogers has made it possible for the 23-year-old Bonderman to clinch a series, thanks to his having awed a series opponent for a second consecutive outing.
"You can't pitch better than that," A's rightfielder Milton "0-for-4" Bradley said. "I had respect for Kenny Rogers before, but - this may tick people off - I almost felt like going over there and giving him a high five, he pitched that good."
Only one A's batter reached scoring position against Rogers, and that was in the first inning.
Rogers (17-8 regular-season, 2-0 postseason) cleaned up the thin threat by inducing Jay Payton to hit into an inning-ending force-out.
Frank Thomas, the A's powerful designated hitter, was especially frustrated. The only hit associated with him was the one he absorbed when Rogers plunked him in the side in the first inning - on purpose, a message pitch, Thomas later speculated.
Message or not, from then on, Rogers bruised more egos than the A's would bruise his pitches.
"Crafty pitcher . . . pitches to the park . . . lot of off-speed stuff," said Thomas, reciting a now familiar litany of the hitters left in Rogers' wake. "Ground balls, pop-ups. . . . That's Kenny, a veteran - he's been doing that for years."
The hard-luck loser was Rich Harden. Little could the A's starter know that hitting Curtis Granderson to lead off the bottom of the first, then yielding consecutive singles to Craig Monroe and Polanco and a run-scoring grounder by Magglio OrdoƱez was, for all intents, the ball game.
When the two runs grew to three on a Monroe homer in the fifth inning, the Tigers had a lead as secure as Fort Knox.
Rogers pitched into the eighth. After a walk and a force-out, his day was done. Seconds after he left the field waving his cap to the standing, roaring crowd of 41,669, Rogers saw his shutout preserved when reliever Fernando Rodney got pinch-hitter Bobby Kielty to ground into an inning-ending double play.
Rogers has pitched 15 scoreless innings in two playoff games, the first 72/3 against the Yankees in the AL division series.
All told, the 41-year-old Rogers has surrendered all of seven hits in his two starts, proof that the self-deprecating pitcher who claims to not have A-caliber stuff has perhaps something even more important.
"I believe in myself," he said. "I believe I can make pitches and I'll find a way."
Tigers manager Jim Leyland declined to say these were the most dominant back-to-back postseason performances he's ever witnessed, reminding all to remember a guy named John Smoltz, owner of a record 15 postseason victories.
"But I tell you this: It couldn't be any better," Leyland said. "It's a little-bit-different type of stuff, but nobody could have pitched better than what Kenny has the last two outings, including John Smoltz."
For Kenny Rogers, how sweet that is.

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