It was early yesterday. The game the night before had gone late, what with an hour and a half of rain delays. Maybe he didn't know what he was saying. Sparky Anderson, the manager of the first-place Detroit Tigers, yawned and said, "Nobody is gonna get shot if we're not in first place on Oct. 4. Nobody's gonna die. I promise you the world will not come to an end."

Anderson rambled. Craziness? Pressure? Baloney. Ever since Cincinnati. Work hard. Have fun. "Just like I told Kevin (Saucier) Monday, 'You mean to tell me the damned world was any better to you for it when you got everybody out?' You gotta do this, you gotta do that. The hell with gotta. I just can't believe baseball has become such a gotta."

He's gotta be kidding.

"Yeah, we've heard that a couple of times," said pitcher Milt Wilcox. "There's a lot of young guys on this team, and old guys, who have never been in a pennant race and never felt the pressure. He's trying to down-play it, maybe a little bit too much . . . He's trying to say it doesn't make any difference if we lose. We know it does . . . I just hope they don't take him for what he says. Who cares? We care . . . Ballplayers don't always do exactly what their managers tell them."

The Tigers, who haven't been in any kind of playoff since 1972, are leading the American League East, but 12 of their last 18 games are with Baltimore and Milwaukee. And maybe, Wilcox says, "Sparky is laying the foundation in case something does go wrong."

The Tigers are 22-12 despite a mediocre team batting average (.258), despite hitting 40 home runs fewer than the league-leading Oakland A's, despite being ranked 10th in the league in runs scored. "Our offense," Anderson said, "really has been very poor."

Only Kirk Gibson, the second coming of Mickey Mantle, has been hitting: .327 in 211 at bats. He's not supposed to be that good yet. Earl Weaver, the manager of the Orioles, told a reporter, "In three years, Kirk Gibson will either be the best player in baseball or home crying to mama."

Anderson said, "Gibson has been one of the real big plusses and I'm a little surprised. I never thought he would come on this quick."

"I hope I can be awesome enough," Gibson said.

"I think I've had quite a lot to do with it (the Tigers' success)," he added. "When it all started, I hit a three-run home run against the Yankees that gave us momentum."

The nine-game winning streak, which took the Tigers from sixth place, 2 1/2 games behind, to first place and two games ahead, began with that three-game sweep of the Yankees. Gibson's home run won the last game of the series.

"Ever since that home run, I've been swinging good," he said. "I'm a fierce competitor and I work very, very hard. I believe in myself and I believe I can do a lot of things even if I don't do a lot of them."

Basically, they are winning with cliches: timely hitting, clutch pitching, defense (best in the league) and contributions from everyone. Which is a good thing considering that only pitcher Jack Morris (12-4) and Saucier (fourth in saves with 13), Dan Petry (fifth in ERA at 2.82) and Steve Kemp (second in game-winning RBI with 10) are among the league leaders in anything.

"One of the main reasons we've done so well is when we have a chance to win, we do," Anderson said. "If we have to hit to right, or bunt, we do. We do the little things well."

"The Tigers are not supposed to be here yet," Wilcox said. "It's supposed to take another one or two years. But there's been such a big turnaround in the pitching. We carried the team until last week."

Morris, the American League starting pitcher in the All-Star Game, came back ticked off after listening to the locker room scuttlebutt that had the Tigers a nonfactor in the second half and "told some of the guys about that."

Since then, he said, "except for the last three games, we were all below 3.00 in ERA." The team ERA, which was an unbecoming 4.25 last year, is 3.48 now. The Tigers are 15-9 in one-run games.

Of course, the pitchers have walked 27 men in the last three games. And Anderson is a bit concerned. "By the time we get to Baltimore, we'll either be living or . . ." He caught himself and paused. "Of course, we'll be living either way. It's just one way will be a lot more pleasant."