October 1, 2009

October Surprise Part 5: Setting the Bear Trap

As the Tigers and Twins wrap up the biggest series of the year with the division title hanging in the balance, we continue our look back on the last great race in Tigers history: 1987 and the seven games against the Toronto Blue Jays in the season’s final 10 days. Today: Game 4, the final game in Toronto.


American League East Standings: September 27, 1987


Team Record Pct. GB
Toronto 96-59 .619 –
Detroit 92-62 .597 3.5

As the Tigers arrived at Exhibition Stadium for the series finale, they knew what was at stake. The chances of coming back from four-and-a-half game deficit in less than a week bordered on the absurd. If ever there were a must-win game, this was it.

GoodMorning.jpgThe Tigers turned to Doyle Alexander to stop the bleeding. Toronto looked to right-hander Jim Clancy to bury the Tigers’ fading division title hopes.

Nelson Liriano led off the home half of the first with a single to right and promptly stole second. Eventual league MVP George Bell drove in Liriano for Toronto’s first run. Though he baffled the Jays for the next eight innings, Alexander and the Tigers trailed 1-0 heading into the top of the ninth.

As he had in game two, Blue Jays manager Jimy Williams called on Tom Henke to start the ninth and snuff out any chance of a Tigers comeback. Henke’s first assignment was Kirk Gibson. With two strikes, Gibson connected for a monstrous homer to right, knotting the game at one and giving the Tigers a flicker of hope.

Neither team scored in the tenth, but in the eleventh inning Darrell Evans blasted a home run — farther then Gibson’s — to give the Tigers their first lead of the game.

Alexander lasted into the eleventh, pitching his finest game of the season. Over 10.2 innings, he scattered six hits, allowing just four walks and striking out four.

The Tigers’ lead wouldn’t last. In the bottom half of the eleventh, an error by Alan Trammell and an RBI single by Jesse Barfield tied the game at two.

In the Tigers’ thirteenth, rookie Jim Walewander led off with a walk. Lou Whitaker’s sacrifice advanced Walewander to second. After an intentional walk to Evans, Gibson dropped a single into center scoring Walewander with the go-
ahead run.

Unlike the previous three games, the Detroit bullpen delivered. Mike Henneman, Dickie Noles and Mark Thurmond combined to shut down the Jays for good in the bottom of the thirteenth and allowed the Tigers to escape Toronto just two-and-one-half games back.

In the clubhouse after the game, Gibson summed up the Tigers situation heading into the final week of the season. “Who knows,” he said to the media surrounding his locker. “We might be setting the biggest bear trap of all time.”

Tomorrow: Heading Home with Title Within Reach.

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