Monday, October 23, 2006

Tigers' Monroe Flexes Surprising Muscle

ST. LOUIS - His is not the first name to come to mind when one sets out to put a human face on the saga of the 2006 Detroit Tigers.

That line, that very long line, forms to the right of Jim Leyland. And Kenny Rogers. And Ivan Rodriguez. And Placido Polanco. And . . . well, you get the idea.
Yet, if Craig Monroe keeps traveling the lofty path he's been on since starting his first postseason, the youthful leftfielder will soon be able to tell those who wish to excel on baseball's biggest stage to line up after him.

For Monroe not only has played a large role in the Tigers' surprising overall success this October. His booming bat also has made it possible for the American League champions to be even with the National League pennant winners, the St. Louis Cardinals, after the first two games of the 102d World Series.

When the best-of-seven Series resumes tonight at Busch Stadium, Monroe and company will be challenged by a former Cy Young Award winner, Chris Carpenter. The Tigers' Nate Robertson will start the first of three games at the home of the National League champions.

The fact that the Series has been reduced to best of five has much to do with the personable, 29-year-old Monroe, who has enjoyed his turn on the big stage as much as any player in uniform in the Fall Classic.

Generous with his time and thoughtful in his interpretation of this unfolding October pageant, Monroe has made his locker a necessary stop for those in the national media.

His performances have increased the necessity to stop, look and listen to this Fall Classic World Series surprise. For example, on Sunday, Monroe used a first-inning home run in Game 2 - his second long shot in two Series games - to stake Rogers to a lead the lefthander never relinquished in a 3-1 victory in Detroit.

In a Series dominated by talk of Albert Pujols' batting prowess, it was Monroe who staked his claim to a bit of Series history after just two starts. He is the first player to homer in his first two career games in the Series since Barry Bonds did so for the San Francisco Giants in 2002.

What makes Monroe's accomplishments all the more impressive is that he has made this postseason thing look easy. Witness his five-game hitting streak dating back to Game 2 of Detroit's sweep of Oakland in the American League Championship Series.

"Not being in this situation before," he had been "shocked sometimes" by himself, he admitted. "I'm relaxed and having fun, and I'm staying focused on one thing, and that's trying to be a good player. I think the big thing for me is trying to compete and do everything that I possibly can to help this team win."

He has done so. Yes, most of the postmortems of Sunday's game at Comerica Park concentrated on whether Rogers was using an illegal substance on his pitches. But Monroe muscled his way into the spotlight by clobbering a Jeff Weaver pitch into the left-field bleachers with one out in the first inning.

"To see him jump-start us like that obviously made me feel pretty good," Leyland, the Tigers' manager, said of Monroe, who had been 0 for 6 with four strikeouts against Weaver in his career.

The night before, Monroe had homered in the ninth inning of a 7-2 loss, showing reticent Tigers bats the possibilities.

Monroe has five home runs among his 12 playoff hits, equaling a franchise record for post-season homers held by none other than Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg.

Greenberg, whose name and retired number adorn the backdrop at Comerica Park much the way they did for so long at venerable Tiger Stadium, built his home-run total in 85 at-bats over four World Series.

Monroe caught Greenberg in 37 at-bats through the course of eight American League division and Championship Series games and the two contests against the Cards.

"Wow," Monroe marveled at his production. "That's something I'll have to really reflect on down the road, not now, because I can't even process that kind of stuff right now. . . . I'm focused on one thing, and that's to help this team win games."

Rogers Dishing Dirt, Dealing Victories

DETROIT - The forecast was chilly, with a strong chance of an early onset of winter.

No, not the blanket of cold, wet, foreboding weather that hung over frigid Detroit last night but rather the wintry outlook that faced the American League champion Tigers last nightif they had lost to the NL pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinals for a second time in the first two games of the 102d World Series.

Detroit needed, if not heat, then certainly some fire. And no one on the Tigers' 25-man roster seemed better equipped to bring that than Kenny Rogers, the 41-year-old lefthander who has reinvented himself as an emotional team leader.
Last night, Rogers stretched his storybook second season by stopping St. Louis, well, cold, 3-1.

Craig Monroe's home run that powered a two-run first was all the hottest pitcher in the postseason needed. Rogers did the rest, extending his postseason excellence to 23 scoreless innings - second all-time behind Christy Mathewson's 27.

"This is what it's all about, to come in here and do something like this," said Rogers, now 3-0 with a perfect 0.00 ERA in the postseason after allowing just St. Louis just two singles - one an infield hit - in eight innings.

St. Louis' only run - unearned - did not come until the ninth, against stopper Todd Jones.

Rogers dominated despite a mini-tempest in the form of an in-game investigation of a substance on his pitching hand during the first inning.
He later said it was nothing more than a clump of dirt mixed with a little rosin.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa? Though he huddled with umpires before the second inning, he preferred to say nothing much after the loss.

"I wouldn't discuss it," he said. "When a guy pitches like that, as a team, we don't take things away from anybody."

Tigers manager Jim Leyland's take: "Tony went out and said a couple balls were acting a little funny. So [the umpires] made him wash his hands. . . . And he was pretty clean the rest of the way."

"What they [the umpires] are doing is they're trying to remove doubt in that situation, and that's exactly what they did," Steve Palermo, the supervisor of umpires, said after the game.

With a controversy averted, the Series now moves to St. Louis and resumes Tuesdaytomorrow. Detroit lefthander Nate Robertson and St. Louis' Cy Young candidate, Chris Carpenter, will open the first of three games scheduled at Busch Stadium.

Both teams started the frosty evening hopeful that their Game 2 experience would merely include the flurry of white towels waved by the more than 40,000 Tigers fans rather than the snow flurries forecasters said were possible.

Local television weather stations had reported Detroit to be 40 degrees - before the sun went down - with a windchill of 30 degrees. And ominous warnings of "chances of rain/snow" crawled across television screens around Comerica Park well into the evening.

Precipitation never materialized. Not so the building anticipation of how a pitcher branded unreliable in previous postseasons again lifted all of Detroit just by toeing the mound.

"You feed off it," Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge had said of Rogers' postseason run. ". . . And that's what wins games and series."

The Tigers had to know their chances of doing the latter would improved tremendously if Rogers won this game. Only 11 of the 50 teams that fell behind by 2-0 in World Series - 22 percent - ultimately won.

Tigers hitters, stymied so badly by little-known rookie Anthony Reyes in Game 1, awakened somewhat against righthander Jeff Weaver.

Monroe's second homer in the Series, with one out in the first, was followed by an RBI double by Carlos Guillen. "Fortunately for me, I got a fastball down the middle and I took a good swing," said Monroe, who extended his franchise record for postseason home runs to five.

Weaver allowed nine hits but only one more run through five.
"He pitched well enough to win, if we could have done something better offensively," La Russa said.

Rogers did not allow that, though. In fact, he allowed nothing - zilch - beyond Scott Rolen's two-out infield single in the first and Yadier Molina's harmless leadoff single in the eighth.

"He's on a mission," Leyland said.

MLB, Players: Peace, At Last?

DETROIT - A person familiar with labor negotiations between Major League Baseball owners and the players stopped just short of confirming reports that the two side had reached a tentative agreement on a new five-year basic agreement.

But, the person, who requested anonymity, did acknowledge baseball was on the verge of doing something not seen "in at least 35 years," he said - and that was reach a deal before suffering a destructive strike or lockout.

"It is fair to say we have reached understandings on a lot of things," the person said, though he added "there is still a lot of work to do before anything is finalized."

Members of the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals, for understandable reasons, mostly wanted to talk about baseball and their World Series matchup yesterday. But the news of a deal that circulated through Comerica Park before Game 2 did not escape their attention.

Rather it sent a wave of relief through both clubhouses.

There is relief that what is building into one of baseball's golden eras at the box office will continue uninterrupted because, in a historic turn, the present deal will be supplanted before it is to expire on Dec. 19.

There is relief that no gargantuan issues arose, such as a salary cap, or controversies, such as how to wed the right of privacy to the policing of illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs.

In the past, such dicey issues and distrust easily pushed the game to the precipice time and again, resulting in hostile labor stoppages that seemed as routine as they were inevitable in the 1980s and '90s.

The deal now in place was made in August 2002, just hours before a threatened players' strike. "I'm excited for the game," said Detroit leftfielder Craig Monroe. "Keep this game rolling."

According to the Associated Press, the deal that was reached this weekend in New York essentially continues the status quo. Economics obviously made that possible.

With the boom at the box office, concerns over big-market, small-market disparity have faded. Commissioner Bud Selig said last week that the game generated an estimated $5.2 billion in revenue this year, up from $3.6 billion five years ago.

The players are benefiting along with the owners, as reflected by the increases in their average salaries. According to figures published on yesterday, the average player salary will be about $2.7 million this year. It was $1.1 million in 1995, the first season after the 71/2-month strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series, and just under $2.3 million in 2002.

The average salary is likely to jump to $3 million next year or in 2008, said.

"Baseball is at an all-time high point right now," Monroe said. "You've got low-market teams doing well and different teams winning every year. Getting this done couldn't have come at a better time."

Monroe's teammate, Nate Robertson, agreed.

"It's fun to see the owners and our union all get together to try to work things out because of what the game of baseball means to people, especially with what's going on in today's world," said the lefthander, who will start Game 3 for the Tigers Tuesday

Why the harmony?

Robertson, for one, spoke to both sides' enlightened perspective when it comes to relating to the average fans - something millionaire players and billionaire owners weren't often accused of having in past labor wars.

"I just got a letter of presentation from a helicopter squadron that flew countless missions in the Middle East," the pitcher said. "They were presenting a flag to this team because [the Tigers are] something they could hold onto. That's how important baseball is."

Cardinals starter Jeff Suppan agreed. "The fans are such a big part of our game, and we appreciate all that they do."