Naturally, there had to be something very wrong, because the Royals had done a very uncommon thing against Willie Hernandez: they had scored a run.

Hitting against Guillermo Villanueva Hernandez usually is the baseball version of running into a brick wall. Thirty-three times, the Tigers had given him the ball with their lead in danger; 32 times, he'd saved them.

"Nobody's perfect," Hernandez had joked.

But the eighth inning of Game 2 of the American League playoffs Wednesday was no laughing matter for the man who might well be the AL's most valuable player this season as well as its best pitcher.

His second pitch, to Lynn Jones, got smacked for a single. Yawn and keep stretching for the dial. Happens to the best now and then, even though Hernandez had been one-two-three flawless the night before.

Hernandez quickly struck out George Brett, and matters seemed in hand once more. Until Hal McRae came out of the dugout, pretty much on one leg and with a four-for-23 average against the Tigers during the regular season.

Royal fans thinking about leaving suddenly were given a reason to linger a while, nearly four more innings as it developed, for McRae whistled a first-pitch double to left that tied the game at 3.

Hernandez eventually escaped the inning, by forcing Steve Balboni to fly to right and Frank White to pop to the catcher; Detroit eventually won in the 11th, on Johnny Grubb's two-run double.

Still, we had been witness to the near-unique predicament of an extraordinarily spectacular reliever needing help twice: from Aurelio Lopez and from whatever had caused a royal aching in his 30-year-old body.

"I think it's the flu," Hernandez said. "(Tuesday) night I started sweating cold after the game, and I had a fever. I'm just glad he (Manager Sparky Anderson) pulled me out."

"I called down to the bullpen and asked Willie how he felt," Anderson said. "He called back and said he was fine. I knew he wasn't. That's my fault."

Hernandez might not be the best pitcher in baseball. Or even the best reliever in the American League. But few have experienced anything quite so magical as he did this season.

What he did was lift the Tigers to the divisional championship and to within one game of the AL pennant, and himself from enormous shadows in two cities.

The Tigers had been quite good in 1983, finishing 22 games over .500 and second to the Orioles. There was one alarming stat: 27 losses in games they led after the seventh inning.

Little wonder Detroit thinkers swapped promising outfielder Glenn Wilson and catcher John Wockenfuss to the Phillies for Hernandez on March 24.

"You could be general manager for 20 years," Anderson said to Bill Lajoie not long ago, "and never make a deal equal to that one."

The Tigers shot to a 35-5 lead out of the blocks, and it was bulletin material when anyone got within a few games. So anyone not addicted to baseball might wonder why even a fellow with a 9-3 record, 1.92 ERA in 80 games and 140-plus innings could be so precious.

This is why: when the other Tigers were torrid, Hernandez was not. When the team was 19-2, he was just 1-0, with two saves and an ERA of 4.80. When many others either drifted back to their natural level of play or were injured, Hernandez was astonishing. When everyone began noticing the Tigers and applying front-runner heat, he was all but unhittable.

It takes a fine offensive team to make a short reliever look good, but few firemen ever doused fire any better from 60 1/2 feet.

Hernandez had been excellent for years, but in the wrong spots behind the wrong men to be given either the attention or money he would have liked to command.

When he was with the Cubs he might face in the World Series, Hernandez was the middle reliever setting up either Bruce Sutter or Lee Smith.

With the Phillies last season, he once went 24 straight innings without giving up a run and tied a National League record by striking out six straight Mets July 3. Al Holland got the majority of the saves and most of the glory for the NL pennant winners.

"I didn't realize I was wasting my time all these years," Hernandez said. "I could have been doing this all the time. I only had 27 saves my whole career before this.

"They (the Cubs and Phillies) never gave me a chance to save games. They couldn't. They always had people over top of my head. And I was always dumb enough not to ask for a trade."

Hernandez did benefit from his experience in Philadelphia, in a way that also led to his 8-4 record and 3.29 ERA last season: catcher Bo Diaz forced him to fine-tune the screwball former Oriole Mike Cuellar had taught him the winter before.

"Bo fell in love with it," Hernandez said.

The Tigers have fallen in love with Hernandez; everybody else in the AL hates to face him.

"I pitch everybody different," he said. "I never pitch you the same, so you can't sit on one pitch. That's why I don't have too much trouble in this league. They don't know what to look for. I'm driving everybody crazy."

If his screwball dips and hops with no special pattern, his attitude has been fast ball hard and straight. When Phillie publicist Larry Shenk asked him if he wanted the ball from his record-tying binge against the Mets, Hernandez said: "I don't want any ball; I just want to be in first place."

Hernandez has made it clear, in Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit, that he wants a handsome return on what he invests from the mound. It's been a recurring theme throughout his career, a troublesome feeling that does not go away quite so quickly as the flu.