Frank Tanana, Part 2

The last we saw of Frank Tanana (in this 1987/Frank’s-birthday-mini-mini-series, at least), he pitched brilliantly against the Blue Jays at Exhibition Stadium only to watch the bullpen blow the game and put the Tigers farther behind Toronto in the A.L. East race.

Tanana faced the Jays 10 days later, this time at Tiger Stadium, and with a different landscape atop the East division. On the last day of the season, Tanana and Toronto’s Jimmy Key squared off again. The Tigers came into the game one-up on the Jays. Win and clinch the division; lose and prepare for a one-game playoff the next day.

October 4, 1987

In the first six games one thing was constant: the team that scored first would go on to lose. The Blue Jays, with the season in the balance, would take their chances and welcome an early lead off Tigers starter Frank Tanana.

Instead, the Tigers struck first. Larry Herndon led off the Detroit third inning with a home run off Blue Jays starter Jimmy Key. A strong wind gust nudged the ball over Bell’s outstretched glove and into the lower deck in left. The Tigers led 1-0 on Herndon’s first homer since Aug. 18.

Key gave his team every opportunity to get back into the game. He blanked Detroit – allowing only a single by Whitaker and three walks – over the next five innings. As the shadows crept across the Tiger Stadium infield, Tanana faced – and escaped – a number of threats. In the eighth, the Blue Jays placed a runner at third with only one out and the heart of the order coming to bat. Tanana got Beniquez to line to right and then Jesse Barfield grounded out to end the inning.

In the bottom of the eighth, Key struck out the side and finished the game giving up only three hits. He could now only watch as his teammates worked to muster some offense against Tanana.

Cecil Fielder, who three years later would become a star with Detroit, led off the ninth inning with a strike out. The next hitter, Manny Lee, who was superb in replacing Tony Fernandez during the season’s final 10 days, battled with Tanana and fouled off five, full-count pitches. With the sixth, Lee grounded sharply to third for out number two.

The Blue Jays’ final hope rested on the bat of third baseman Garth Iorg, hitless in his previous three at bats. Iorg swung at the first pitch, a tantalizing curveball, and hit a slow roller between pitcher’s mound and first. Tanana scooped the ball, turned and softly underhanded it to first baseman Darrell Evans for the final out – clinching the Tigers second division championship in four years.

The Blue Jays could only watch as the Tigers celebrated a championship that, just a week earlier, appeared to be theirs.

I was at that game and can still remember the rumbling of the upper deck bleachers in centerfield. Today, there’s no way a manager would send his number-three starter out to the mound for the ninth inning of a one-run game. Then again, who knows?

I think it’s safe to say that this start was Tanana’s crowning achievement in Detroit. He went on to pitch five more years for the Tigers before ending his career in 1993 with both New York teams — first the Mets and then the Yankees.

For the Tigers he compiled a 96-82 record. Overall, his career numbers are 240-236 with a 3.66 ERA.

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