DETROIT — It's been eight years since Frank Tanana took that throw from Rod Carew, stepped on first base and clinched the Angels' first divisional championship back in 1979, a long time to wait before returning to the doorstep of the playoffs.
By the time he got there, Tanana was missing one fastball and wearing his third different uniform since his Anaheim days. He also had won only once since Aug. 11, was taken out of the rotation in September and was facing a Toronto team overdue for an outburst after six consecutive defeats.
Well, Toronto is still overdue. Look for that outburst some time in 1988.
Tanana, who long ago swapped his lazer deliveries for lazy curves and screwballs, threw enough junk at the Blue Jays Sunday afternoon to trash their hopes of extending their season. Tanana shut out Toronto on six hits, 1-0, to pitch the Detroit Tigers to the American League East title for the second time in four years.
And with 51,005 fans on their feet at Tiger Stadium, Tanana was again there for the final out. A dribbler back to the mound by Blue Jay third baseman Garth Iorg. A pounce by Tanana. A throw to first base.
Tanana was back in the playoffs.
"Both are wonderful feelings," he said, comparing his bookend moments in the spotlight. "Both times we did it, I was on the mound. That's very exciting. But this has got a chance to be probably No. 1."
There are reasons for this.
Tanana grew up here, beginning his baseball career at Detroit's Catholic Central High. He always wanted to be a Tiger but, by the time Texas traded him to Detroit in 1985, injuries had robbed him of much of his natural ability--skills that enabled him to strike out more than 260 batters in consecutive seasons with the Angels.
A junkballer before his time, the 34-year-old Tanana was forced to relinquish his title as Fast Frank long ago. "We call him Frank The Flipper now," says Detroit designated hitter Bill Madlock. "He flips the ball here, flops it there."
Tanana also flopped through much of this season's stretch drive, compiling an 0-3 record and a 7.41 earned-run average during eight starts between Aug. 11 and Sept. 29. Things got so bad that Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson removed him from the rotation for nine days in mid-September.
"I was a mess," Tanana said. "I wasn't getting anybody out. I wasn't helping the team."
But there he was on Sunday, pitching the game that separated Detroit from its third AL East title and Toronto from a potential one-game playoff. Tanana earned this start with strong efforts in his last two outings. This start indicated that he had made it back.
Tanana made the most of it.
Between jumping around on the mound and pumping his fist after important outs, Tanana limited the Blue Jays to five singles and one triple. That triple, struck by Manny Lee, could have caused trouble for Tanana, because, before it, Cecil Fielder singled to left.
But before Lee could deliver his triple, Fielder was hung up on a blown hit-and-run play and thrown out easily at second base by Detroit catcher Mike Heath.
That was as close as Toronto came to scoring against Tanana (15-10).
"Frank pitched simply a great game," Heath said. "He did precisely what you have to do against an aggressive hitting club like Toronto. He took a little off his pitches, then added a little on others, he kept them off stride. And they're such aggressive hitters, that made them look that much worse."
Joked Tanana: "A little slop here, a little slop there. Once in a while, I got one in the 80s (m.p.h)."
It wasn't much to look at, but it allowed Tanana to best the Blue Jays' best pitcher, Jimmy Key, who also pitched a complete game. Key (17-8) surrendered only three hits, but one of them was a fly ball by Larry Herndon that just cleared the screen above the left-field fence in the second inning.
Solo home run . . . and the difference in a divisional title race.
"I never once thought that would be the only run in the game," Key said. "Especially the way the wind was blowing out. Herndon just got a fly ball up in the wind and it blew out. I thought there would be others."
But with Tanana surrendering only six outfield outs, there wouldn't be many chances for the Blue Jays. Toronto would lose by one run--just as it had on Saturday, and on the Friday before that.
Incredibly, each of the final seven games played between Detroit and Toronto were decided by one run. The Blue Jays won the first three, the Tigers won the last four.
In between the Tiger victories, Toronto sandwiched three straight losses to Milwaukee. Overall, that's seven consecutive defeats by the Blue Jays--a staggering close to a season that will not be remembered for 96 wins but for a demise that wiped out a 3 1/2-game Toronto lead in one week.
The word "choke" was mentioned to Key.
"That's not right," Key shot back. "That's horrible, terrible. When you win 96 games, there's no choking. If that's a choke, then what did the other 21 teams do?"