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Blown Away
TOM VERDUCCI
October 16, 2006
The young Tigers pitchers dominated the Yankees with 100-mph heat, and the A's power arms polished off the Twins. Now they are squaring off in a most unexpected ALCS showdown
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October 16, 2006

Blown Away

The young Tigers pitchers dominated the Yankees with 100-mph heat, and the A's power arms polished off the Twins. Now they are squaring off in a most unexpected ALCS showdown

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The Yankees appear headed for a turbulent off-season in which next to nothing can be ruled out, even the firing of manager Joe Torre and a trade of Rodriguez, though A-Rod has been firm in saying that he will not waive his no-trade clause. What Detroit exposed as New York's most pressing need, however, is the infusion of young power arms. The losing starters in Games 2, 3 and 4--Mussina, 37; Randy Johnson, 43; and Jaret Wright, 30--had only 10 strikeouts combined against a team that had whiffed more than every other AL club except Cleveland.

Up until Zumaya brought the intensity of his fastball and demeanor to Game 2, New York had played 58 postseason games at Yankee Stadium under Torre and lost only one of them by one run (Game 1 of the 2003 World Series) while winning 13 by that margin. "I really wanted to pitch at Yankee Stadium," said Zumaya after the 4--3 win, nursing a Corona (or "Mexican champagne" as he called it) and a right eye reddened with blood from a broken vessel caused by a particularly violent sneeze. "I told Justin before the game, 'Get me a lead and I won't lose it for you.'"

Rogers maintained Detroit's momentum at home the next night, pitching what may have been the game of his life--no easy feat for a guy with a 1994 perfect game to his credit. Winless against the Yankees for 13 years and winless in his nine career postseason appearances, Rogers pitched with unprecedented will, animation and velocity all the way into the eighth inning of a 6--0 shellacking, the worst shutout loss in New York's 335 postseason games.

All season the young Detroit starters have taken their cues from Rogers, who regularly counsels them in the clubhouse and on the bench. Verlander marvels at the veteran's attention to detail, citing, for instance, a Rogers admonition to keep his eye on the catcher's discarded mask on foul pop-ups. If the ball should take the catcher back in the direction of his mask, an alert pitcher will pick up the mask to avoid the possibility of the catcher's tripping on it.

The difference between Rogers and the young pitchers he has mentored goes well beyond age. The rest of the Tigers' postseason starters--Verlander, a Detroit first round pick in 2004; Bonderman, an Oakland first-round pick in '01; and Nate Robertson, a Florida fifth-round pick in 1999--are classically groomed power arms. Two of them, Bonderman and Verlander, were in the majors by age 22.

Rogers, by contrast, didn't play baseball for his Plant City, Fla., high school team until he was a senior, and then only as an outfielder. Impressed by his arm strength, Texas took him in the 39th round of the 1982 draft and converted him into a pitcher. Rogers, however, was so raw that the Rangers had to teach him how to pitch out of the stretch. He logged seven years in the minors and then four more as a reliever in the majors before he became a full-time starter at age 28. Rarely cracking 90 mph with his fastball, Roger earned a reputation over the years as a craftsman who changed speeds and could throw a biting curveball in almost any count. In recent years, however, Rogers has shown improved velocity while enjoying some of his greatest success. He has won 49 games over the past three seasons--the best three-year stretch of his career.

After Game 3, in which he surprised the Yankees with his velocity and flummoxed them with dive-bombing curveballs, an emotional Rogers admitted he never wanted to win a game as badly as he did that one. His young students made sure to take notes. "Seeing him go out there with that intensity, it was unbelievable,'' said Bonderman, who needed only 40 pitches, all but eight of them strikes, to set down the first 15 hitters on Saturday. "I just wanted to go out there and try as hard as I could to do the same. How can you not feed off of that?"

Like Detroit, Oakland buzzed through its series thanks to young power pitching. Indeed, six of the top 19 AL strikeout pitchers under 30 are in the ALCS: Bonderman, Verlander and Robertson for Detroit, and Dan Haren, Barry Zito and Joe Blanton for Oakland--and that doesn't even include Rich Harden, the A's nominal ace who missed much of the year with an elbow injury and is now the team's fourth starter.

Oakland also boasts its own reformed and humbled veteran who assumed a leadership role. Like Rogers, A's DH Frank Thomas, 38, underwent a transformation with his new team. The White Sox happily shed the free agent Thomas last winter, with Guillen and Chicago G.M. Kenny Williams insulting him as a poor clubhouse influence on his way out the door. Thomas, who sat out Chicago's title run last season with a broken left ankle, limped around last year's winter meetings in Dallas trolling for a job. One of his stops was to Oakland's hotel suite, where he met with G.M. Billy Beane and his assistant, Dave Forst. "The first thing I noticed was that he was in better shape than he had been for years," Beane says. "After listening to him, after he got up and left the room, Dave and I just looked at each other like, Wow. This guy has something to prove. You could see how determined he was. That's what got the ball rolling."

The Twins briefly showed interest in Thomas, but, he explains, "I wanted to get as far away from Chicago and the Midwest as I could." He signed with the A's for $500,000 guaranteed, with another $2.6 million in incentives. "We figured if he could play 115 to 125 games, Beane says, "he'd hit 25 home runs and drive in between 80 and 90 runs."

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