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In the end, the little things counted. The lordly Detroit Tigers swept the Kansas City Royals in the best-of-five American League playoffs last week not so much because the Tigers' bats boomed, which they did on occasion, and their fastballs crackled, which they did frequently, but because of Detroit's mastery of the game's subtleties and some good old-time, down-in-the-dirt hustle. Little things. The game that clinched the pennant Friday night in Tiger Stadium was a case in point.
With one out in the bottom half of the second inning and Darrell Evans on first and Chet Lemon on third, Marty Castillo, a backup catcher and third baseman who appeared in only 70 games this season, came to bat for the Tigers. Castillo didn't figure to be a starter in this series, but on the last day of the season, in New York, he got the word that he would indeed start. With the division title long since sewed up and the Tiger spirits running toward horseplay, Castillo, kidding with manager Sparky Anderson said, "You know, you really are crazy."
"Yeah, well I'll show you how crazy I am," Anderson replied. "I'm going to start you next week in the playoffs."
"I'll show you how crazy that is," answered Castillo. "I'm going to win the MVP."
He didn't quite make good on his boast, but in that second inning of the climactic game, he did establish beyond question his manager is of sound mind.
At first it looked bad for the home team. Castillo hit a bouncer directly to K.C. shortstop Onix Concepcion, a ball that seemed certain to lead to an inning-ending double play. In Kansas City, where the game is played on artificial turf, it's an easy DP. But the grass is high and slow in Tiger Stadium, and though Castillo isn't fast, he knew that "if you run hard, you never can tell what'll happen." The grass slowed the ball just enough and Castillo, pumping furiously, ran just fast enough to beat Frank White's relay from second base to first. Lemon scored from third with the only run of the game, the deciding run of the series, the run that gave Detroit its first pennant in 16 years. It was only the second inning, it was an apparently unimportant ground ball, a little thing, but it was the ball game.
Milt Wilcox, a 34-year-old journeyman pitcher given new life this year (17-8), mowed down the Royals for the first three innings of this game by throwing mostly fastballs, but Tiger pitching coach Roger Craig was worried. Wilcox was becoming predictable. Soon he would become hittable. "You have to establish your curveball," Craig told Wilcox before the fourth inning. Wilcox did. He struck out four consecutive batters in the fourth and fifth, and, mixing his conventional fastball and curve with a split-finger fastball Craig had taught him, he allowed only two hits in eight innings before giving way to Willie Hernandez in the ninth. Craig had suggested a subtle tactical change, a little thing, and it had paid off.
However, Wilcox's progress through the Kansas City batting order wasn't without incident. With two outs and the tying run, in the person of Don Slaught, on base in the eighth, Wilcox faced Willie Wilson, the Royals' leading hitter (.301) and one of the fastest men in baseball.
Wilson slashed a hard ground ball to first baseman Evans's right. It appeared to be a certain hit, one that would move the potential tying run into scoring position and put the potential winning run on base. But no. Evans, a 16-year veteran, dived for the ball, backhanded it and plummeted face first into the infield dirt. Wilson was flying toward first. Wilcox was struggling to get there. Evans scrambled to his feet and made a calculated decision. "If I don't make a perfect throw, Wilson'll beat it," he said to himself. "I've got to get there whatever way I can." He ran forward a few steps, then slid into the bag at almost the same time Wilson himself was sliding into it. Evans got there first. Wilson slid across the bag and sat in the dirt as the Tigers, relieved, trotted off the field. Evans made a quick decision, a little thing, and it got Detroit out of trouble.
In the next inning, Castillo caught Darryl Motley's foul popup for the last out—"I'd always dreamed as a kid of making a diving catch in a situation like that, but this'Il do," he said—and flipped the ball and his cap to the fans in the third-base box seats. The Tigers had their pennant. The fans inside the park began chanting and singing. Multitudes outside started pounding on the gates to get inside so they, too, could be a part of history.