Rogers Reveals Himself to Be a Man of Substance

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

What in the world has gotten into Kenny Rogers? And can Chris Carpenter find some of the same triple-strength espresso to chug between innings on Tuesday night to wake himself up and get back to pitching like his Cy Young self?

Long ago, the last time the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals met in the World Series, two pitchers defined the show. Bob Gibson would win, then Mickey Lolich would answer. Gibson won again, Lolich answered. Finally, they met in Game 7 and Lolich won a third time, partly because of a misjudged fly ball. Now, Rogers and Carpenter appear on the verge of re-creating a contemporary equivalent of that tit-for-tat, ace-for-ace pitching battle that may run through this entire Series.

After watching his fist-pumping, scream-to-the-skies, eight-inning performance on Sunday night, Detroit hopes that Rogers can hang onto his new hyperkinetic personality for one more October start in Game 6 before collapsing from acute adrenaline deprivation for the rest of the winter. No man, on the verge of turning 42, can spend so much energy forever.

Meanwhile, the normally intimidating Carpenter, who turned timid twice in Shea Stadium in the NLCS, desperately needs to rediscover his normal form back home. Since his ERA in new Busch Stadium was 1.81, vs. 4.70 on the road, he may well.

And he better. Because the Cardinals know that another dose of Rogers probably still awaits them. Which is scary. In Game 2, Rogers gave the latest evidence that there are mutants among us. The X-Men would be proud. Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm and now the Gambler. Just watch, soon we'll learn that Rogers was near that North Korean nuclear test. Because he sure has been exhibiting strange new powers recently.

Who knew that an 18-year veteran could suddenly have a complete personality makeover? As Rogers showed for the third time in the playoffs this month, this isn't really the postseason. It's just Kenny's therapy session, and we're allowed to watch.

"I've been through as much as most people and failed as much," said Rogers, who's changed teams seven times and, of course, was suspended in '05 after making himself the Boorish Ballplayer poster boy for abusing a TV cameraman. "Failure is part of the game. You can't escape it. If you try, it's going to find you, more than your share sometimes. And I've had mine.

"Going through that makes all of this more rewarding, just to be able to say you got through it. . . . Sometimes I doubted myself. I'm just fortunate in every aspect to play with this club. I've benefited more than they have from me."

For years we've seen the repressed, outwardly mild-mannered Mr. Rogers, the smooth left-hander who used to sulk at umpires and internalize frustrations until, eventually, he'd snap. Now, he's suddenly decided to get in touch with what's eating him. And then turn it loose to eat the other team.

It's one thing to learn a new pitch or make a nice comeback from an injury. But what Rogers has done is eerily close to the script from the Kevin Costner movie "For Love of the Game." Except that if Costner's character, a 40-year-old Tiger star pitcher with personal problems, were as preposterously animated on the mound as Rogers has become this month, Costner would have been killed by critics for chewing the scenery.

Rogers seems to know he's playing the Billy Chapel role. "Brandon Inge doesn't care if he runs through the metal rails and breaks both legs," Rogers said of the Tigers' third baseman before Game 2. "He's playing for the love of the game."

As we seem to rediscover every October, you can't top the melodrama of real life. By convention, fiction has to seem real. But reality has poetic license to ignore convention. However, recent postseason baseball has flaunted this lack of editorial restraint. Nobody's complaining, mind you. But the Red Sox, followed by the White Sox? Isn't that laying it on a little thick?

Now comes the transformation of Rogers, much maligned both as a person and a pressure player. Before '06, in 24 1/3 innings in playoff and all-star games, Rogers had allowed 24 runs. This month, in 23 innings, he's allowed 0. The record is 27.

However, things are never easy or predictable for Rogers. Even in his moment of Series glory on Sunday, he was back in a controversy. What was that big brown smudge on the base of his left thumb? It looked like it might be an "illegal substance." It was in exactly the spot you'd put a substance if you wanted to scuff the ball or try to get a better grip on a cold night.

But everybody concerned says it was just a big ol' hunk of dirt that accidentally happened to be in a very suspicious place. So, the umps asked him to wash it off after the first inning. Since nobody examined the gunk, no one (except Rogers) really knows. So, everybody gets one free guess. Mine is: any substance found on earth except dirt. But then, I'm a romantic.

Now, thanks to Rogers, we find ourselves with the equivalent of a five-game playoff. But my, how perceptions have changed in just a few days. Before Game 1, the Tigers had home field-advantage and a rotation set with their two best pitchers on tap. The Cardinals had to send two of the worst pitchers to the mound to begin a Series, a rookie (Anthony Reyes) and a midseason castoff (Jeff Weaver) with, respectively, 5-8 and 8-14 records.

Heading into Game 3, it's the Cardinals who have home-field advantage as well as their two best starters ready to go. In the last three years, Carpenter is 51-18 while Jeff Suppan, the NLCS MVP, is 44-26. Also, the Cardinals were a powerhouse at home this season (49-31) but pathetic on the road (34-47). It's doubtful there's ever been a Series team that was so atrocious on the road. Yet the Cards just got the split that they desperately needed in Detroit.

Finally, St. Louis's most worrisome pitcher, Reyes, will get to start Game 5 at home with considerably increased confidence instilled by his game-of-my-life performance in the opener, during which he retired 22 of 23 hitters in one span. The Tigers still have their deep pitching staff and a season of being tested in a far tougher league. But their trip to St. Louis will be tough for a team with only two players with Series experience. And one of them, Rogers, won't pitch until they get back home.

Stick around. This is going to get progressively more interesting, maybe even seven games interesting. And Rogers and Carpenter, like Gibson and Lolich, will remain right at the center of the storm.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company