On a team filled with stars and superstars, on a team that has covered itself with glory for an entire season, John Grubb has been a man little noticed during this baseball season.
But, after tonight, he may be long remembered in Detroit.
Because tonight, after the Tigers had blown a 3-0 lead, after the unsinkable relief pitcher Willie Hernandez had been sunk, it was Grubb, a man who had driven in all of 17 runs this season, who delivered a two-run double in the 11th inning to give them a 5-3 victory over the Kansas City Royals and a nearly insurmountable 2-0 lead in the American League championship series.
Grubb's hit, a fly ball that center fielder Willie Wilson, shaded toward left, could not catch up to in the right-center field alley, rescued the Tigers on a night when almost everything went wrong for them.
They let a 20-year-old rookie pitcher off the ropes early after building a quick 3-0 lead. Their brilliant young double-play combination of shortstop Alan Trammell and second baseman Lou Whitaker fielded shoddily enough to give the Royals two gift runs. Their relief ace, Willie Hernandez, who had saved games 32 times in 33 tries this season, blew a 3-2 lead in the eighth inning.
But still, as they have done all year, the Tigers found a way to win. As a result, they will try to clinch their first pennant in 16 years Friday night in Detroit.
"They way this team has been all year, if one guy lets down, someone else picks him up," Grubb said. "Tonight, I was the guy."
Grubb was an unlikely guy. At age 36, he has toiled in well-deserved obscurity for 12 years in the major leagues, averaging 32 RBI per season. He did not even know he would start as designated hitter until he arrived at the ballpark and saw the starting lineup.
"He's a terrific guy who has done a super job for this ball club all year," Manager Sparky Anderson said. "I just hope he continues to do it for us."
Grubb did it tonight against Dan Quisenberry, no mean feat. Quisenberry had entered the game in the ninth inning in relief of starter Bret Saberhagen. The Royals had tied the game in the eighth when 38-year-old Hal McRae smashed a pinch double off Hernandez, scoring Pat Sheridan, who had led off the inning with a single.
That tied the game at 3-3 after the Tigers had led, 3-0, getting two runs in the first and a home run from Kirk Gibson in the third. The Royals had closed the gap to 3-2 with runs in the fourth and seventh, both coming after the Tigers had failed to execute double plays that could have ended the inning.
Thus, after Hernandez, pitching with a strep throat, according to Anderson, had given up the tying run, Kansas City Manager Dick Howser went to his ace, Quisenberry, to try to get the victory the Royals so desperately needed.
Quisenberry got the Tigers in the ninth. Then, Anderson pulled the surprise of the night, yanking Hernandez in favor of Aurelio Lopez. Although Lopez had a good year (10-1, 14 saves) Anderson's ace all year has been Hernandez.
"But Willie shouldn't have pitched tonight," Anderson said. "He had the strep throat and I shouldn't have asked him to pitch. But I called down to the bullpen and he said he felt fine so I brought him in the eighth. I shouldn't have."
That mistake having produced a tie game, Anderson went to Lopez. This time, he guessed right. With the crowd of 42,019 sensing that the Royals were going to turn this gorgeous fall evening into a victorious one, Lopez was too tough.
He walked Wilson with two out in the ninth, but catcher Lance Parrish threw him out stealing on an 0-1 pitchout. Quisenberry sailed through the 10th, Lopez survived it.
"I was just trying to throw strikes out there," Lopez said later. "Against (Steve) Balboni, I was scared. He is a strong hitter."
Lopez faced Balboni with two down in the 10th in what turned out to be a superb confrontation. George Brett had singled with one out and Darryl Motley had moved him to second with a two-out single.
At that point, Howser, playing to win the game right there, put Greg Pryor in to run for Brett, who is still slowed by a hamstring pull that has bothered him all year. Up stepped Balboni, who had singled to set up the Royals' second run in the seventh inning.
Quickly, Lopez was ahead, 1-2. Six times, he went for the third strike and six times, cutting and slashing, Balboni stayed alive, fouling off each pitch. Four were fast balls, two breaking balls, according to Lopez.
Finally, on his 10th pitch to Balboni, Lopez got a fast ball inside. Balboni, who hit 28 home runs this season, got under it just a little and his high fly settled in Chet Lemon's glove a little shy of the center field warning track as the crowd screamed for a second, then sat back and groaned.
In the 11th, Quisenberry, who rarely goes more than two innings, gave up a leadoff single to Parrish. Darrell Evans, who had laid down exactly one sacrifice bunt all season, put down his second one. When catcher Don Slaught couldn't pick the ball up, there were men on first and second.
Anderson, playing by the book all the way, asked Ruppert Jones to duplicate Evans' feat. He couldn't, bunting the ball right back to Quisenberry. He easily threw Parrish out at third.
Enter Grubb. He had 176 at bats this season, producing 17 RBI. But five of those 17 RBI were game-winners.
"I've always felt fairly comfortable at the plate against Quisenberry," Grubb said in his soft Virginia drawl. "He usually keeps the ball low but this time he got a fast ball up a little higher than I think he wanted it. I was just trying to hit it somewhere."
He did, pulling a 1-2 pitch. Wilson was off with the pitch and for a split second it looked as if his racehorse speed might be enough to catch the ball as it dropped toward the 385-foot mark. But the ball got there too quickly and took one hop off the green wall as Wilson desperately retrieved it and threw back toward the infield.
Evans, no speed demon at 37, was flying for home with Jones practically running up his back. If the throw had been in time, Slaught might have tagged both runners out. But it was late and Evans scored standing, Jones sprawling.
The Tigers led, 5-3. Asked where the fatal pitch had been, Quisenberry said wryly, "right-center field."
Lopez gave up two hits in the 11th, but he got Lynn Jones to line to right field with two on and two out and the Tigers had won a game they easily could have lost.
"Saberhagen pitched well, we played pretty well, we just didn't win," Howser said. "Tonight, we had our chances. I just hope we get a few more in Detroit."
Anderson, ever anxious to make his team look like it is struggling, was doing no celebration. "We came here expecting to play five games and I still expect to play five games," he said. "I expect to play Sunday. The rules say you play five games, that's what I plan for."
The rules also say that the first team to win three games wins the pennant. In Detroit, they're planning for that one right now.