Rogers continues his age-defying brilliance

Originally Published: October 13, 2006
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- Most guys Kenny Rogers' age prefer a change of routine when the days grow shorter and the weather turns this cold. They drain the lawn mower, pack the Sansabelt slacks and aim the Lincoln Continental toward Florida -- where golf courses abound and the nights are free for dinner at Shoney's and "Wheel of Fortune" re-runs.

Rogers, 41, is the exception to the rule. Along with a flair for making hitters look foolish, he has a capacity for making time stand still.

Kenny Rogers
Elise Amendola/AP PhotoMore than a year after his altercation with a cameraman, Kenny Rogers has endeared himself to Tigers fans.
It was 42 degrees and blustery when Game 3 of the American League Championship Series began Friday, but Rogers had absolutely no problem getting a feel for his pitches. For 7 1/3 innings, he paralyzed the Oakland Athletics with fastballs and confounded them with changeups and curves.

His teammates, watching Rogers orchestrate a 3-0 victory over the A's, were equally impressed with Rogers' outs and the manner in which he responded to them. Time and again, Rogers pumped his fist, gritted his teeth, and shouted exhortations into his glove. We can only assume he used language that might turn the leather blue.

"He's 40-something years old. Maybe 50," Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge said, smiling. "But you would never know it by looking at him. He plays with the intensity of a 12-year-old kid going out to the Little League field. I enjoy watching him. I hope when I'm 78 and still playing, I have the same intensity as him."

Not to mention the same grasp of the tricks of the trade.

"Age brings knowledge," Detroit outfielder Curtis Granderson said of Rogers, "and he's got a bunch of it."

As Rogers walked off the mound early Friday evening, tipping his cap and waving to the sellout crowd at Comerica Park, you couldn't help but recall one of his career low points. During the 2005 All-Star Game, after an ugly altercation with a Texas TV cameraman threatened to make him a national pariah, Rogers was booed by Detroit fans right here on his home turf.

Now Tigers fans universally love him, adore him, and plan to name their children after him. At the very least, he'll never have to pay for souvlaki in this town again.

Remember the widely-held notion that Rogers was a lock to fade in the postseason? It's been amended. First, Rogers threw 7 2/3 shutout innings against the feared Yankees in the Division Series. Now he's brought the Tigers to the cusp of their first World Series in 22 years by toying with Oakland's lineup.

The end result: Rogers is working on a streak of 15 consecutive scoreless innings. His postseason numbers -- an 0-3 record with a 8.85 ERA heading into this year's playoffs -- are now a more representative 2-3 and 5.09.

The Tigers can't help but wonder what kind of effort he might produce when the stakes are even higher.

"I knew he was pretty good, but the last two starts I've seen him go to levels I didn't know he had in him," said Detroit closer Todd Jones.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland, a man not typically given to hyperbole, took it a step further. Leyland compared Rogers' recent efforts with the October performances fashioned by Atlanta's John Smoltz -- the man Leyland called the "best postseason pitcher I've ever seen."

There are all sorts of explanations why the Tigers are suddenly playing as if they're jet-propelled. You can point to Leyland's knack for making the right moves and putting people in situations where they thrive. The bullpen has been terrific, even though hard-throwing Joel Zumaya is still day-to-day because of a sore wrist.

And while the middle of the Detroit order has contributed next to nothing, the Tigers are getting lots of mileage and big hits out of Placido Polanco, Craig Monroe and Granderson.

"[Rogers] throws balls that start on the left side of the batter's box and come to the right side. Or he sinks it and it drops out of nowhere. Then he sneaks one past you. He's got everything working pretty well."
-- Tigers CF Curtis Granderson

One Detroit newspaper columnist even pointed to the Game 2 rainout at Yankee Stadium 10 days ago, when the Tigers had to change hotels at the last minute and wound up bonding through shared inconvenience, as a possible galvanizing event for Leyland's squad.

Regardless, it's all over but the cork-popping. The Athletics have scored a total of six runs and batted .216 as a team in the first three games of this series, and now they have to face Jeremy Bonderman in Game 4.

It's hard to imagine anyone pitching much better than Rogers. He allowed only two hits -- singles by Jason Kendall and Marco Scutaro -- and threw 19 first-pitch strikes to the 26 hitters he faced. Precious few of them crossed the heart of the plate.

"The only time I see it right down the middle is if it's 3-0 and he needs to get a strike," said Granderson. "He throws balls that start on the left side of the batter's box and come to the right side. Or he sinks it and it drops out of nowhere. Then he sneaks one past you. He's got everything working pretty well."

Rogers was so efficient with his pitches, and the fans were so inclined to keep moving just to stay warm, that the momentum inevitably built. With every two-strike count, the crowd of 41,669 stomped its feet, cheered like crazy and waved wild towels in anticipation.

"The whole stands looked like they were swaying back and forth," Inge said.

It's worth noting that Rogers was pretty darned good during the regular season, when he went 17-8 for the Tigers and tied for 11th in the league with a 3.84 ERA. Although that effort was obscured by a shaky final start against Toronto and a relief loss to Kansas City on the final day of the season, the real Kenny Rogers has asserted himself in October.

"I believe in myself," Rogers said. "I believe I can make pitches, and I'll find a way."

Yeah, but can he boogie? Earlier this season, according to Granderson, Rogers' fellow Tigers tried to get him to bust some dance moves on a team flight. But the old left-hander resisted.

"Hopefully, we'll have a chance to get him out there center circle," Granderson said. "It'll be a stretch, but it's possible. Get the cameras ready if we do."

The cameras are waiting, along with the champagne. Maybe Kenny Rogers was just waiting for the optimal time to celebrate.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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