Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
All spring the Detroit Tigers - rollicking in first place, batting close to .300 as a team - have known that sooner or later they would have a dark-alley meeting with reality.
But they didn't know that reality would have an Irish name and throw with his left. Hello, Mike Flanagan.
"Brothers, we've just got to forget tonight," said Detroit's Ron leFlore to several mates after Baltimore's Flanagan hurled a two-hit, 2-0 victory with nine strikeouts Tuesday night.
"Coule any team have beaten that guy tonight?" LeFlore asked. "Like that tune on the PA said as we were comin' off the field. 'Why'd you have to be so good?'"
The Tigers (23-13), are going so well that they could laugh about their first shutout of the year and heap praise on Flanagan.
"You've got to be men to stay in a pennant race," said coach Gates Brown. "Got to take the sour with the sweek."
The Tigers swallowed hard Tuesday night.Baltimore's Larry harlow jumped so high above the left-field fence to rob John Wockenfuss of a solo homer in the second inning that he hit his arm-pit on the top of the eight-foot fence on the way down.
The rejuvenated Tigers have built their success on a makeshift pitching staff, platooning youngsters around second base and gobs of left-handed batting power.
Tonight the retread pitcher, Jack Billingham, gave up a homer to almost powerless O's catcher Rick Dempsey, then walked home the second run.
Both of Detroit's keystone kids - Mark Wagner and Steve Dillard - kicked grounders. And that younger lefty power - Jason Thompson and Steve Kemp - went nothing for six with five strikeouts.
"Look, we're a good enough team that we can give credit where it's due," said Thompson. "Flanagan stuck it to us. He's got more speed than last year.
"And he's got better control of his fast ball. He can sink it in to left-handers and sail it out to right-handers," said Kemp.
"He's the best on Baltimore's staff," threw in LeFlore, adding to what sounded like a Flanagan symposium. "He throws harder than (Jim) Palmer. He's mature. He may be the best left-hander in the league."
If Flanagan, who has won four in a row for a 5-3 record and has struck out 29 in his last three, complete-game starts, has been Baltimore's bright hope, the Tigers are showered with genuine prospects.
"Rich Dauer (O's) and I were talking," said Kemp, "and we agreed it was almost like these two teams have reversed positions since last May. We've got the hot rookies, the team-work. We're making the fundamentally sound plays like they were last year."
The Tigers are in the midst of finding out if they are as good as their fans hope. Gentlemen named Trammell, Wagner, Whitaker and Wockenfuss were all hitting .300 or more as the Tigers entered last night's game with a .292 average.
The Bengal pitching staff, minus Mark Fidrych who is giving a sore shoulder the Florida sun treatment, has been such a bizarre concoction that pitching coach Fred Gladding is called "Mandrake the Magician."
Behind tender-armed young Dave Rozema, the Tigers have made do with starters Bob Sykes, Jim Slaton and Milt Wilcox, all of whom have sub-.200 career records.
"My standard answer is the truth," sand Rusty Staub. "I don't honestly know if our young guys can keep going. But we'll find out fast."
The Tigers play Boston and Baltimore 13 times in 13 days. After tonight, they stand 2-3 in their first showdowns with AL's quality teams of '77.
"We've just beaten up on the little boys," Gates Brown said laughing. "Everybody says, 'You ain't played the mean people yet. Just wait.'
"Well, we're anxious to find out, too. Nobody outside this room thinks we're for real. And nobody inside it better think we aren't."
At least for now, Detroit leads the league by a few percentage points and the Tigers are one-for-all.
Manager Ralph Houk has, amazingly, found ways to give 24 of his 25 players considerable work. Third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez, alarmed at being platooned with Phil Mankowski, has stopped (in Brown's words) "swinging at curves tht bounced in front of the plate," and is batting over .300. The Tigers are full of such tales.
"We've built with youth," said one Tiger, "and we've gotten rid of players like Tito Fuentes who were only interested in their batting averages. We've had some good luck, but we've also got some good guys. We care about each other, we study the game together."
Those sentiments, as all Tigers know, are said most easily with the instant wisdom that even a short term in first place always seems to bring.
"It's easy to be alert when you're in first place," Brown chuckled. "It's when the air starts comin' out of the balloon that your mind has to keep your body from making a fool of you."
If the Tigers don't stay in contention, they are vastly better than the bunch that has averaged 92 losses a year for Houke's last four seasons.
"We're built for long range," veteran staub beamed, citing Thompson, Kemp, Fidrych, LeFlore, Rozema and longer a matter of good, it's how good." second baseman Lou Whitaker.