This is a city preparing for a celebration.

When the Detroit Tigers' charter landed at Metro Airport at 4 a.m. today, nearly 3,000 fans were waiting, drawn by the news that the Tigers had beaten the Kansas City Royals, 5-3, to take a 2-0 lead in the American League championship series.

Friday, the Tigers and the 52,000 fans who will jam into cozy old Tiger Stadium fully expecting an all-out party after Game 3 of the series (WJLA-TV-7, 8 p.m.). One more victory and Detroit will clinch its first pennant since 1968.

"We lost a pivotal game last night," Royals Manager Dick Howser said today, forcing a rueful grin. "Let's face it; we're two down and our backs are to the wall. Unless we come back and win, that game is one we'll think about all winter."

It was also a game that will be remembered for the Royals' grit -- coming back from a 3-0 deficit to tie the game at 3-3 in the eighth -- and for Detroit's depth. On a night when Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and relief ace Willie Hernandez were below par, Aurelio Lopez and John Grubb were there to pick them up.

Grubb is 36 and Lopez will be at least that old Friday, when he celebrates a birthday. Grubb, a regular with the San Diego Padres a decade ago, hasn't batted 400 times in any season since 1978. Lopez, the Tigers' bullpen ace as early as 1979, made 71 appearances this season, but, in many of them, served as the set-up man for Hernandez.

But Wednesday, Lopez came on to pitch in the ninth after Hernandez, fighting influenza, had given up the tying run in the eighth. Lopez held the Royals scoreless for three innings. That was enough, because in the 11th, Grubb, a part-time designated hitter who batted only 176 times this season, got a two-run double against the Royals' ace, Dan Quisenberry.

The Royals know their mission -- to win three games here -- is almost impossible. Only once in 16 years has a team come from 2-0 behind to win a championship series. That was the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers. But they played the last three games at home.

The Royals did have a 5-1 regular-season record here after sweeping a four-game series in August. But, as second baseman Frank White pointed out today, "We didn't face (Jack) Morris and (Dan) Petry in that series."

They will face Morris and Petry in Games 4 and 5, if the Royals find a way to beat Milt Wilcox (17-8) Friday. They will send Charlie Leibrandt (11-7) to oppose Wilcox.

The pitching matchup is intriguing. Both starters are rejects from the Cincinnati Reds. Wilcox, 34, was a rookie on the 1970 Reds who were managed by a rookie named Sparky Anderson. Wilcox pitched twice in the World Series that year, losing one game to the Baltimore Orioles.

He was traded to Cleveland two years later, then did a brief stint with the Cubs before being sold to Detroit's Evansville farm in June 1976. He had a bad arm, a lousy record and, it seemed, not much time left in professional baseball. But Wilcox, as he puts it, "learned to pitch, instead of just throw" and made it back to the big leagues.

He was a solid pitcher for the Tigers from '77 to '83 (79-64) but had shoulder problems last year. The Tigers might not have offered him a new contract if they had been able to sign a free agent starter. But they didn't sign one and Wilcox signed a two-year contract. In spite of taking cortisone injections in his shoulder throughout the season, he produced the best record of his career.

"Being a part of this team's success is totally different than the Reds back all those years ago," Wilcox said today. "I've been here eight years. I've suffered with these guys, been through a lot with this team. It's been a special year for me."

The same can be said of Leibrandt, who came to the Royals from the Cincinnati organization last year. He had bounced up and down with the Reds for six years and came to camp this spring viewed as a Triple-A pitcher by Howser.

"We had 22 pitchers in camp," Howser said. "We were taking nine north and Charlie was about 15th. We were going to look at our young guys down there so he didn't get much chance."

Leibrandt went to Omaha and was 7-1 there when Howser called him up at the end of May. He stepped right into the rotation and was 11-7, including a victory over the Tigers here in August.

That game was one reason Howser pitched Bret Saberhagen in Game 2, moving Leibrandt back to Game 3. "He's a sinker ball pitcher and on the natural turf here the ground balls are better for him," Howser said.

Leibrandt, who turned 28 today, refused to take on the mantle of Royals savior. "I don't look at it that way," he said. "The team is down, 2-0; the team has to come back. They aren't expecting me to go out and pitch a shutout. If I hold them to two or three runs, I'll have done my job."

Will that be enough? The Tigers won the opening game easily, then beat Quisenberry to win the second game. All year this has been a team with depth and solid pitching.

It is a team that wins with such people as Kirk Gibson, a snarling brutish competitor who will go five days without shaving in order to look mean. He also became the first Tiger to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases, reawakening early comparisons with Mickey Mantle.

But it also wins with such players as Grubb, a quiet Virginia gentleman who goes unnoticed most of a season until a playoff game is on the line. And, it wins with Anderson, who keeps people laughing but also keeps teams winning.

"When I first came up to the Reds I didn't think Sparky knew what he was talking about," Wilcox said today. "But I was only 20 then. If I've learned anything since then, it's that you listen to Sparky. He's a very wise man."

Wise or wisecracking, Anderson has brought the Tigers to the brink of a pennant. If they finish the Royals off, they may take the huge murals of the Tigers players that hang here in the Renaissance Center and make them life size -- or bigger.

"I played with the Cubs and their fans are fanatics," Wilcox said today. "But they haven't got anything on Tiger fans. Just wait until Friday night; you'll see."

Both managers said today they will come back with their first-game starters Saturday if there is a fourth game. That would be Morris for the Tigers, Bud Black for the Royals . . . Quisenberry, asked Wednesday if the prospect of going to Detroit was encouraging to the Royals: "I guarantee you there's no one in this locker room going around yelling, 'We're going to Detroit, we're going to Detroit.' " . . . Wilcox today stumbled slightly trying to explain Anderson's success as a manager. "He's more philosophal (sic) now," Wilcox said. Then he laughed at his mispronunciation. "I'm trying to talk like Sparky does to explain him right."