The kid who became a man tonight sat stone-faced, staring toward his locker, answering questions maturely and honestly but as though his right foot were a microphone.

Like his teammates on the Kansas City Royals, Bret Saberhagen had battled the superior Detroit Tigers in the second game of the American League championship series as well as outsiders had imagined; like his teammates, his spirits were as limp as the untouched sandwich nearby.

"It's like George (Brett) told us," Saberhagen said. "Instead of a hill to climb, now we have a mountain."

At 20 years 5 months 22 days, Saberhagen is the youngest pitcher to start a league championship game. The mountain he built for himself in the first inning was both steep and slick; yet he managed to claw wonderfully close to the top.

Saberhagen is a rather frail-looking blond, with a mustache that surely have taken weeks to spread most of the way across the upper lip he was keeping stiff just now. His shoulders are neither broad nor sturdy, but they had helped carry the Royals past the Tigers three times during the regular season.

Manager Dick Howser asked him to do it once more.

The advice you give the youngest kid ever to start a championship series game is exactly what the Royals offered Saberhagen tonight: "Go out there, relax and have fun."

Nobody expects him to believe a word of it, of course. The hope is that he'll be lucky enough to survive -- and learn. He wasn't; he still did.

"What I concentrated on especially," Saberhagen recalled, "was to get the first out of every inning."

Right away, that went sour, for the Tigers' leadoff man, Lou Whitaker, reached first on an error by shortstop Onix Concepcion.


Great way to get going; first play of the game is misplayed, and the guy who had caused the team to be royally embarrassed and flustered the night before, Alan Trammell, steps up.

Trammell flied out to center. But the sighs were scarcely out of a near-record Kansas City crowd before the next two batters, Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish, had hit back-to-back RBI doubles to right.

"Usually, if I get out of the first I feel real good," the kid said, and he was able to do just that with a fly ball to left and grounder to first.

For the next seven innings, the kid pitched splendidly. Yielded only four hits and struck out five. There were just two mistakes, one that stayed in the park and one that didn't.

"After that first," Saberhagen said, "most everything seemed to go in our favor. I got to feeling stronger and more confident."

After the homer by Gibson in the third, Saberhagen got himself in a jam in the fifth. Trammell singled, then half-limped to second after a pickoff throw bounced off his hip and toward the box seats.

Eventually, Trammell was hurt more than Saberhagen. For it allowed Gibson to be half-intentionally walked to get to the right-handed Parrish.

One more hit very likely would finish both Saberhagen and the Royals. Parrish the thought, the kid said.

"I got him with a fast ball up and in," Saberhagen said. "Catcher (Don Slaught) called for a slider, but I shook him off. I didn't want it that high, but he just couldn't get the bat on it."

From then on, the kid was close to flawless. And touchingly human. There was only one more hit his final three innings, but a fly by Darrell Evans brought a lump to the kid's throat the instant it left the bat.

"Figured it was gone," he said. "All I wanted as soon as he hit it was to grab a ball and throw another pitch. But the wind must have grabbed it. Or something.

"Not that it matters now."

Yes, it does.

When right fielder Pat Sheridan grabbed the ball on the warning track, the kid skipped for joy near the mound. In the dugout, the kid rushed to Sheridan, hugged him and buried his head on his shoulder.

"He's naive," Howser had said before the game, "but not afraid."

From nearly being buried, Saberhagen and the Royals climbed back to force the game into extra innings. The kid did his part, all than anyone could ask. He put the game in the usually capable hands of Dan Quisenberry.

"Actually," Saberhagen said, "I was more nervous on the bench. There's the feeling you have no control. You can't contribute. George is the same way."

The mood on the bench, the kid said, "was a little feeling that we could win." But that little feeling was touched with a little realism.

"You've gotta get to their starters in a hurry," he said, "and to their bullpen in a hurry. We just couldn't get the breaks when we needed 'em and they could."

Steve Balboni stranded six runners; Slaught botched a bunt; Frank White was less than stellar at second; Willie Wilson continued an October slump he started four years ago against the Philadelphia Phillies.

"The first two games," Saberhagen said, "I really felt we'd win." Acting like a kid, he added: "Maybe I ought to hope we'll lose the next three games and we'll win 'em."

On second thought, that didn't seem either grown-up or useful.