It was the 26th of September. With just 8 games remaining, 2012 had been a frustrating season for the Detroit Tigers. They had lost their last 11 one-run games as Detroit bats had turned to jello when it mattered most. The Tigers had just a .118 batting average without a home run over their last 90 plate appearances in the 7th inning or later with the game within a run. But somehow they were still tied with the White Sox atop the American League Central. And now, with more than 32,000 at Comerica expecting the worst, the Tigers found themselves in yet another close game. With the score tied 4-4 in the 8th against KC, Delmon Young singled with one out. Jim Leyland decided it was finally time to take the gloves off. Don Kelly, with the look of a soldier on a mission, trotted to first to run for Delmon. You could feel the season turning. With Dirks at the plate, Kelly took off and was safe with what will always be known in Southeastern Michigan as simply ``The Steal.’’ After AD singled Kelly to third, we all knew that Don would score the go-ahead run if Peralta could somehow put the ball in play. Jhonny managed a weak groundball to third, Dirks knocked Irving Falu into medium-depth leftfield, and Valverde recorded 3 quick outs in the 9th to make Kelly’s run stand up. The Tigers were in first place by themselves in the AL Central for the first time since July and the White Sox would not catch up. Don’s run had broken the 1-run curse as Detroit would win again 5-4 the next day and twice more by a single run before the season ended.
Now fast forward to October 7. We pick up the action the inning before our hero makes his entrance. Doug Fister had faced 47 inning leadoff men in 2012 with at least an average leverage index and had not issued a single walk. Today that streak ended as he walked Seth Smith to start the 7th. After a bunt and a Pennington single, Detroit trailed 2-1 and now had the difficult task of trying to come back against the Oakland bullpen.
Doolittle came in for the 7th. The Doctor had allowed only an infield single and a walk to the last 16 batters he’d faced and he easily carved up Avisail and got Gerald on a weak first-pitch bounceout. But the Tigers broke through against Oakland Reliever Number 1 when Austin and Omar singled and Coco Crisp bobbled Cabrera’s fly ball for what seemed like an eternity before it settled on the green grass as 2 runs scored.
Next it was Jim Leyland’s turn to manage with a lead. The night before in the 8th Benoit had allowed a single to Cespedes and a long drive off a left-handed bat. Joaquin repeated the performance today. Unfortunately, this time the drive left the yard. Detroit trailed 4-3 and it was Bob Melvin’s turn to make a pitching change.
Enter Ryan Cook who had not allowed a run in his last 15 innings. But Jim Leyland was determined to do whatever it takes. Just like on September 26, Delmon got things started with a single. And the man known as Donz came in to run. Casual fans might wonder why the speedier Berry was not the selection, but Leyland was 2 moves ahead anticipating that Delmon’s spot in the order would come up in a critical spot later. After AD got the bunt down and Q fanned on 3 pitches, the stage was set. DK distracted Cook to the extent that he uncorked a wild pitch and Kelly dashed home with the tying run. Let’s go to the 9th. It’s your move Jim.
An astute baseball man recently observed that using Phil Coke to pitch to a right-handed batter is like drinking milk after the expiration date. The numbers on the label provide a clear warning, but some managers just like living on the edge. After 1 out, Cliff Pennington stepped in with an incredibly impotent .168/.205/.215 (113 PAs) batting line against lefties in 2012. But Coke reminded us that he’s no ordinary lefty. After Pennington missed hitting his first right-handed home run of 2012 by a few inches, Tiger fans could breathe deeply when he only walked. Then Danny Worth made the biggest play of his career for the second out. When Coke only allowed a single to Drew to leave runners at the corners we could take another deep breath realizing that Phil had managed to pitch to his 4 batters and the score was still tied. Alburquerque did his thing against Cespedes and we go bottom 9. Your turn Bob.
Enter Grant Balfour. If you thought Doolittle and Cook had been doing well, consider this. After striking out Austin to start the 9th, Mr. Balfour had retired 27 straight with more than half going down via the strikeout. If he’d arranged those outs in the right package they’d call it a perfect game. But Omar broke the string with a single to right which, importantly, forced Balfour to deal with the great Cabrera without a parking place at first base. The great one chased Infante to 3rd with a base hit which apparently set the stage for Prince. Incredibly, the leading candidate for AL manager of the year opted to use his open base for Fielder to pitch to the man who had turned the Tiger season around less than two weeks earlier. I stood and screamed ``Sir, you do not diss Don Kelly and get away with it.’’ Donz knew he would get a fastball and he calmly took the first-pitch offspeed offering from Balfour. Then the Oakland closer threw it as hard as he could. Kelly swung and when bat hit ball more than 40,000 people, already standing, raised their arms in celebration. One of those people was Omar Infante who knew that only a 30 yard jog to home plate was required to cement Don Kelly’s place as one of the October legends in Detroit baseball history.