Sparky Anderson has never been a man to mince words. When he talks about this Detroit Tigers team he starts by saying, "You give me Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Lance Parrish and Chet Lemon and I'll give you any four players in baseball and good luck to you."

The first three are familiar names by now: They have been All-Stars, they have been magazine covers. They are the cornerstone catcher and the crucial keystone combination.

Then there's center fielder Lemon. He bats near the bottom of the lineup and he often goes unnoticed. Not by baseball people.

"Anything not over the fence, Chester catches it," Trammell said moments after the Tigers' 5-2 victory over the San Diego Padres tonight. "I'm not surprised when he makes a great catch because he always makes them."

Tonight, Lemon made a catch that will be remembered around here for a while because it kept Game 3 of the World Series from slipping from the Tigers' loosening grip.

It came in the seventh inning. Two men were out, Steve Garvey was at third base and the Detroit lead had been cut to 5-2. Relief ace Willie Hernandez had come in to the game. The batter was Terry Kennedy. Hernandez got two strikes and Lemon edged in several steps.

"When he gets behind two strikes, Terry just tries to make contact," Lemon said. "He's smart that way, so I moved in. I play pretty shallow anyway because I'm pretty confident going back on balls.

"When he hit it, though, I knew it was hit very hard and I knew I had to go a long way. I just put my head down and ran." He smiled. "The rest, I guess, is history."

Rich Gossage, who played with him years ago in Chicago, says Lemon is baseball's best center fielder. "He plays with reckless abandon," Gossage said. "He's always been that way."

Lemon, who ran a 9.9-second hundred yards in high school, does not play center field by the book. Frequently, he will take his eye off the ball -- as he did tonight on Kennedy's ball -- because he has so much confidence in his ability to run instinctively to the right place. "I just try to beat the ball to its destination," he said, with a laugh. "Seriously, if you run and watch, you can lose a step or two that's crucial to making a catch. I just look and put my head down and go. Usually, the ball is there."

Anderson says that he has told Lemon he expects him to catch every ball that doesn't go over a fence.

"He does it all the time," Anderson said. "He's made better catches than tonight, although maybe they weren't quite as important. He never got recognition in the past because in Chicago he played on second division teams. Now, with a winner, people are noticing him."

"When Sparky says the things he does about me catching every ball, that's just an incentive for me," he said. "I love it. That catch tonight, yeah, it felt really good even if I don't think it was my best.

"You could almost feel the momentum changing out there. We had had so many chances to put the game away early and hadn't and now here they are coming back at us. They aren't like a lot of teams, they come back. If that ball falls for a double or triple, they have the tying run up and maybe we're in trouble.

"I'm just glad we didn't find out if we were in trouble or not."

"He just went and made an uncatchable ball an out," Kirk Gibson said. "You look at it on tape, you'll say it wasn't that tough a catch. Look at it again, see how far he ran, then you'll know."

"I just make the plays," Lemon said. "Then I let other people tell me what they mean or how good they are."

People will be telling him about this one for a long time to come.