Rogers worth every penny to Tigers

Originally Published: June 8, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- The ace of the Detroit Tigers is closing in on his 200th win and his third straight all-star team. And who out there has noticed?

The ace of the Detroit Tigers has virtually an identical career record (198-134) to Curt Schilling (201-133). But who out there has noticed that, either?

The ace of the Detroit Tigers is also the answer to an amazing trivia question: Name the only left-handed pitcher selected for each of the last two All-Star Games? But we bet nobody out there has noticed that, too. Right?

Well, the answer to that trivia question would be ... (here comes that drumroll, ladies and gentlemen) ... Kenny Rogers.

But Kenny Rogers isn't looking for any attention. After all, last June, he got noticed plenty. For all the wrong reasons.

So no matter how low we place the radar screen tracking his 18th season in the big leagues, Kenny Rogers will be happy to fly beneath it. As far as possible. Even if he needs one of those amphibious vehicles that can fly under water.

Dodging that radar screen gets tougher and tougher these days, however, because the ace of the Detroit Tigers just keeps on winning.

Rogers won for the eighth time Thursday night. And that ties him for second in the American League (behind only Schilling). But this wasn't just another win. This one came against the White Sox, a team the Tigers hadn't figured out a way to beat all year.

But Kenny Rogers figured it out, and won a 6-2 game that the Tigers absolutely had to win, no matter how many times their manager said it was no big deal.

He did what aces do. He let NONE of the last 17 hitters he faced reach base. He kept his team from getting swept by the White Sox and giving up first place. And whether there were 100 games to go or 1,000 games to go in this season, this felt like a statement game.

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)Rogers, who improved to 8-3, allowed five of his six hits in the first two innings.
So Kenny Rogers made a statement.

"I knew this was a big game," Rogers said afterward. "I mean, we didn't want to be swept again."

Six months ago, you might recall, the Tigers weren't exactly being viewed as geniuses when they signed this man to a two-year contract worth 16 million bucks.

He was (and is) 41 years old. He was coming off a season in which he won just four times after the All-Star break and had an ERA close to 5.00.

And let's just say he wasn't quite baseball's most beloved figure, after that regrettable burst of camera rage just about wrecked both his season and his long-time gentlemanly image.

But the Tigers saw past all the obvious reasons not to sign this guy. What they saw was exactly the kind of steadying veteran presence they needed to inject into a rotation that otherwise projected to have an average age younger than Britney Spears.

So $16 million later, he was all theirs. And if you're wondering how many pitchers who changed teams this offseason have more wins than Kenny Rogers does, you won't need a lot of paper to list them all.

Because the correct answer is: Zero.

"You know, that's what we got him for," said his manager, Jim Leyland. "I think everybody seems to have this fetish about clubhouse atmosphere and what does a guy like that do in your clubhouse and does he help your young pitchers and all that stuff. Well, I'm sure he does some of that. But we got him because he's a good pitcher."

How good? Well, Rogers is undefeated (4-0) after a Tigers loss. He has allowed one earned run or none in five of his 13 starts. He has given up five hits or fewer in six of his 13 starts. He has pitched into the seventh inning eight times in those 13 starts.

"He's the same old Kenny, man," said Pudge Rodriguez, his catcher now in Detroit, his catcher another lifetime ago in Texas. "Kenny's Kenny. Kenny knows he can still pitch."

But to pitch well THIS year, for THIS team, after all that's gone down around him in the last 12 months, feels like more than just a major pennant-race development.

It also feels like a career rebirth -- for a man whose few weeks as baseball's No. 1 whipping boy last summer didn't jibe with the peaceful, low-key fabric of the rest of his career.

So Rogers describes all this as "extremely satisfying." Being underestimated, after all, is nothing new to a guy who was a 39th-round draft pick and didn't win his 100th game until age 33.

"I don't get overestimated very often," Rogers chuckled. "My career basically should never have happened. I'm proud of what I've done. I've got a lot of aspirations to do more. But I'm not a guy who goes out and dominates anybody. I just try to find a way to win with whatever I've got. Some days it's enough. Some days it's not. Some days it's just chucking and ducking."

But after the second inning Thursday, there was no ducking, only some serious chucking.

"We've needed a guy like that for a long time. I'm glad we went out and got him. ... He means a lot to our team and to guys like me."
-- Tigers starter Jeremy Bonderman, on Kenny Rogers
All six hits Rogers allowed came in a span of seven hitters in the first and second innings. After that, he was an automatic 1-2-3 inning machine. And that allowed the Tigers to settle down, tie the game at 2 in the third inning and win it with a wild four-run sixth that included the sight of Carlos Guillen stampeding home from second on an infield single.

"When you play the top teams, if you tiptoe against them, you're going to get your butts beat," said Leyland. "There's no sneaking into second place or first place. You've got to go out and beat teams like this. It's that simple."

But none of that hustle would have meant anything without the ace doing his thing. And he has done it relentlessly, starting with six three-hit innings opening day.

No one knows what lies ahead. But he looks like their perfect missing piece. He was exactly what they needed. They were exactly what he needed.

They needed an ace who had been around and could pitch in games like these without hyperventilating. He needed a new start, with a team that was just as interested in forgetting the recent past as he was.

They fit. He fit. What a concept.

"I kind of knew what I was getting into when I came here," Rogers said. "I researched these guys. I knew they had a lot of talent. But I didn't know how much. I didn't know about the [Justin] Verlanders and the [Joel] Zumayas and guys like that. Those are some talented young guys.

"I knew a little bit about [Leyland], and very little about [pitching coach] Chuck [Hernandez]. But I knew, once I met them, that I'd be comfortable here, and they'd appreciate what I did. And that's all players want."

Much as Leyland says it's all about the winning, it's also about more than that. Kenny Rogers has more career wins (198) than the rest of this rotation combined (114). So they needed him, maybe more than he even comprehends.

"We've needed a guy like that for a long time," said fellow starter Jeremy Bonderman. "I'm glad we went out and got him. You know, when you bring in a guy like that, I didn't know what he was going to be like. But first time I met him, I thought, 'This is going to be great.' Just his personality. He clicked with all of us. ...

"He means a lot to our team and to guys like me. He's a guy who's willing to teach and share advice with you. Anything he's been through, he's willing to talk to you about. He's had to overcome some stuff. He's just one of those guys you know you can always count on to help you out when you need him."

He has four months to go in his 18th season. And his body clock is ticking. And Leyland is the first to admit that "I don't know if he recuperates as fast as he ever did. But when he's feeling right, man, he's pitched great."

If he keeps feeling right for another couple of weeks, he is going to join the 200-Win Club, a group that includes just four other active left-handers: Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Jamie Moyer and David Wells.

And if he can just win a couple of more games in the next three weeks, Rogers is almost certainly going to get named to his third straight all-star team. Which is pretty amazing when you consider he made just one All-Star team before he turned 39.

He's already one of the best baseball stories of 2006. But if he makes it back to another All-Star Game, he might be the most riveting story there -- because this All-Star appearance figures to feel a lot different than the last one.

"Maybe this time," laughed Kenny Rogers, "they won't hoot on me so much."

Well, it would be hard for them to hoot on him any MORE than last year. But this time, maybe Kenny Rogers can return to the scene of his All-Star crime to make the case that everyone in life, and in baseball, deserves a second chance. Even at age 41.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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