On July 27, 1984, Jen and Brad Scherzer of Chesterfield, Missouri, welcomed a baby son they named Maxwell.
On that same day, 549 miles northeast in Detroit, the Tigers opened a homestand by playing a doubleheader on Friday night at Tiger Stadium. The Tigers split that doubleheader and of course went on to win the World Series that October, while Baby Max was still a little tyke bundled in a blanket. Scherzer grew up to win the Cy Young Award 29 years later in a Tigers’ uniform.
The doubleheader on the day of Max’s birth was just the first of many the Tigers faced in the hot summer of 1984, a slew of games that turned out to be the biggest challenge to what most assumed was an insurmountable lead in the American League East.
At the All-Star break in ’84 the Tigers were on top of the baseball world. They had scampered out to an amazing 35-5 start, built a huge lead in the AL East, and sent six players to the All-Star Game, including ace Jack Morris, who began the season 10-1. But all was not perfect in Bengal Nation. After a few bad outings in June, Morris stopped talking to the media, leaving his teammates and the coaching staff in the awkward position of having to defend their temperamental pitching star.
“We thought he was being immature about the situation,” pitching coach Roger Craig later wrote.
Other problems were mounting, as a shoulder injury hampered shortstop Alan Trammell, a spark plug of the team. With Morris struggling, the starting rotation started to deteriorate. After Dan Petry and Milt Wilcox, the pickings were slim, with Sparky Anderson having to rely on untested and wild Juan Berenguar, seldom-used Glenn Abbott, or the reckless and unpredictable Dave Rozema, who often found himself in the manager’s doghouse.
With all of that swirling about the Tigers had to deal with a daunting task in mid-summer: six doubleheaders in 19 days, including three in three days in early August. It was a grueling stretch that gave the Tigers their biggest challenge of ’84.
Thanks to back-to-back rainouts in Boston in April and three more games washed out against the Royals, Indians, and Angels, games started to stack up for Sparky’s brigade after the All-Star break. Amazingly, even though they once held a lead as high as 12 games over the Blue Jays, there was concern that the strain of so many games in such a short stretch would sink Detroit.
On July 27 at home against the Red Sox, Detroit played a Friday doubleheader at Tiger Stadium, with Petry and Abbott toeing the rubber. The Detroit offense pounced in the opener and won 9-1, but Abbott was knocked around early and the Sox won the nightcap, 4-0. Four days later, Sparky again had to reach deep into his pitching staff, calling on Berenguar and Rozema in a twinbill against Cleveland at The Corner. Berenguar was staked to a 5-0 lead in the second inning when little-used Doug Baker, playing for the injured Trammell, hit a bases-clearing triple, and Ruppert Jones hit a home run. Berenguar rescued the beleaguered Detroit pitching staff by pitching into the 7th, giving way to rubber-armed Doug Bair, who cruised through 2 2/3 innings of no-hit ball to finish up a 5-1 victory. Baker and Bair had delivered their most important contributions for the entire regular season. It proved crucial because Rozema surrendered six runs in less than three innings in the second game and the Tribe triumphed 6-4.
The true test of the Tigers mettle came on the final Sunday of their homestand, on August 5th against the Royals, when the two teams squared off for a makeup doubleheader, with KC having already won the first two games of the series. It was the backend of the rotation again, as Rozema and Berenguar were on the hill. In the opener, Rozema fared a little better than his previous start, but Detroit bats were silent against Bret Saberhagen, the 20-year old right-hander who was their nemesis that season (he’d handed the Tigers their first loss of the season back in April, halting their nine-game winning streak). But in the sixth, Detroit put up three runs to tie the Royals and it stayed that way into the ninth when Kansas City did something few teams had been able to do – score off Tiger relief ace Willie Hernandez. With two outs, Dane Iorg smacked a two-run double off Willie, who was in his third inning of relief work, to take a 5-3 lead. Detroit scratched across a run in their half of the ninth of submariner Dan Quisenberry (a healthy Trammell singled in Sweet Lou Whitaker), but the tying run died at second and the Royals had a hard-fought 5-4 win. In the second game, Detroit fans watched helplessly as Beranguar imploded in the first inning, allowing four runs. The Tigers were shutout by soft-tossing Charlie Leibrandt, losing again 4-0.
“I never thought I’d hear fans booing us this year,” catcher Lance Parrish said after the double loss to the Royals.
Following the sweep at the hands of KC, the Detroit pitching staff was spent – Berenguar had gutted out a complete game in the loss to Kansas City, but the bullpen was out of gas. To provide some pitching help, Rusty Kuntz was sent to Toledo and right-hander Carl Willis was called up. Detroit hopped on a plane and flew to Boston for a five-game series, starting with back-to-back doubleheaders at Fenway Park on Monday and Tuesday.
The first game on Monday was a typical slugfest in the bandbox ballpark in Beantown. The two teams traded runs in the middle innings, each scoring two in the fourth, and then Detroit put up five in the fifth, keyed by a three-run blast over the Green Monster by Chet Lemon. But Petry couldn’t hold off the powerful Red Sox lineup, and in the bottom of the frame, Jim Rice hit a two-run homer and three straight singles plated another. Sparky waved Aurelio Lopez to the mound but he was greeted by another single, this one off the bat of light-hitting Marty Barrett and the Sox were within a run, 7-6. But to their credit, the Tigers battled and in the seventh they got a home run from Tom Brookens and an RBI-single from Parrish to stretch their lead to 9-6. Lopez held on for 2 2/3 innings before giving way to Hernandez for a scoreless ninth for a 9-7 win. In the second game about 30 minutes later, Carl Willis barely broke a sweat before he was bounced from the game – he retired one batter in the first inning as Boston pounded five hits and scored four runs off the rookie, who looked overmatched. Bair came in and took one for the team, pitching 4 2/3 innings of relief while Boston’s punishing offense scored five more times. A young right-hander named Roger Clemens handcuffed the Detroit offense and the Sox earned a split, 10-2. The following day the situation reversed: Boston won the first game of the doubleheader, beating Morris 12-7 as the Tiger ace failed to finish the second inning. For the proud Morris it was the low point of his season, as his mark fell to 14-8, and 4-7 since his red-hot start when some thought he might win 30 games. In the finale of the twinbill, Detroit clawed out one of the most inspiring wins of their season, blowing a 4-0, tying it late, and winning in extra innings. Milt Wilcox was cruising along with a 4-1 lead into the seventh inning when he gave up a three-run bomb to Dwight Evans. One batter later, Rice launched a monstrous flyball over the Green Monster to give Boston a 5-4 lead. Sparky popped from the dugout a hitter too late and replaced his starter with Lopez. Detroit still trailed 5-4 in the top of the ninth but they showed the heart of a champion by www a rally. Dave Bergman, who delivered several clutch hits in 1984, started the inning off with a double down the right field line off Bob Stanley. An out later, with Bergman hugging third base, Whitaker bounced a grounder to first base where Bill Buckner bobbled it, allowing the tying run to score. It was eerie foreshadowing of what would happen to Boston two years later in the World Series when Buckner let a ball slip through his legs to lose Game Six. The Tigers and Sox played into the 11th still knotted, then Parrish showed why he was called “The Big Wheel” when he sent a waist-high fastball from reliever Rich Gale into the screen above the Green Monster in left field for a two-run homer and a 7-5 win. Thank god for Aurelio Lopez. The Mexican right-hander entered the game in the 7th, and proceeded to pitch the 8th, 9th, and 10th innings without allowing a hit or a walk.
The Tigers escaped with a 2-4 record in their back-to-back-to-back doubleheaders against the Royals and Red Sox, but there was no rest for the weary however, as the Tigers and Red Sox played the finale of their five-game series the next day. Detroit was obviously hungover and lost 8-0 when Abbott got rocked for five runs and didn’t make it out of the first inning. The team flew across the country to Kansas City and swept the Royals in a three game weekend series (Lopez and the bullpen again rescuing the pitching staff in the opener), but there was one last challenge – a doubleheader two days later back at Tiger Stadium against the California Angels. Sparky was forced to pitch Berenguar and Rozema in this twinbill, and the Halos pounced on them like jackals on fresh meat. The Angels swept the doubleheader and the Blue Jays continued to win, reducing the Tigers’ lead to 7 1/2 games, the closest they’d been since the All-Star break.
But the Tigers came back and won the next night against the Angels behind Petry, and the following night they won a thrilling 12-inning game at The Corner on a walkoff hit by Barbaro Garbey. It started a four-game win streak and a stretch of 10 wins in 12 games that stretched their advantage over the Blue Jays to 12 1/2 games. The “threat” was eliminated and the ship was righted, the Tigers were going to be ok and they were not going to blow their lead.
“The most worried I’ve ever been in baseball,” Sparky later said, “was [in 1984] when we had that lead. If I’d have blown that lead, the fans would have hung me up from that flagpole in center field.”