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New life in this old rivalry

Wily Mo Pena slid past Tigers catcher Vance Wilson for Boston's first run of the game. With both teams in contention, each run counts in the race to October
Wily Mo Pena slid past Tigers catcher Vance Wilson for Boston's first run of the game. With both teams in contention, each run counts in the race to October (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)

It's been a long time since the Tigers and Red Sox were contenders in the same summer. That's why this mid-August clash of American League charter members easily holds our attention as we await the arrival of You Know Who Friday.

``It's great because these games mean a lot to both teams," said Mark Fidrych, who was the biggest name in baseball 30 years ago. ``Sorry, but I've got to root for the Tigers. I played for Jim Leyland in Clearwater in 1974 when I was 19 years old."

The Tigers came to Boston with baseball's best record and their longest losing streak of the season (five). The Sox, meanwhile, were coming off the nice bounce of three straight weekend wins over the Baltimore Doormats.

Both streaks stopped last night. Riding the strong left wing of Nate Robertson, the Tigers snapped out of their losing streak with a 7-4 win over Josh Beckett (5.02 ERA). The Red Sox now lead the Tigers, 995-936, since 1901, but alas, they trail the Yankees by two games (three in the loss column) in this summer of '06.

This is the Tigers' only visit to the Hub this year -- unless we are blessed with a Detroit-Boston playoff series, which would undoubtedly bring Ralph Houk, Ernie Harwell, Al Kaline, Carl Yastrzemski, and Fidrych out of mothballs. There's considerable history between the franchises. One hundred and six years of competition will do that.

The Red Sox and Tigers went eyeball-to-eyeball in the magical summer of 1967. The Red Sox won that pennant while standing in their Fenway clubhouse, listening to the redoubtable Harwell describe Dick McAuliffe's game-ending double play grounder in Detroit.

In 1972, it was Billy Martin's Tigers taking the division by beating Boston in the first two games of a season-ending series (that's when Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio fell down twice rounding third base for the Red Sox).

Now this. While the Red Sox scuffle to make the playoffs for a franchise-best fourth straight season, the Tigers are on their way to 100 wins and a spot in the postseason for the first time since 1987.

``I'm really happy for Detroit," said Gabe Kapler, who broke into the big leagues as a Tigers center fielder (wearing Kirk Gibson's No. 23) under Buddy Bell in 1998. ``They really care about their team and they have been starving for a winner."

The Tigers also have the best home uniforms in all of sport. Baseball tuxedos. And it's been too long since we saw the Old English ``D" in a meaningful game in October.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland is the very definition of old school. Sitting behind the ancient desk in the manager's office of the visitors' clubhouse at Fenway yesterday afternoon, Leyland put his spikes up on the desk, lit a succession of Marlboros, and spoke plainly about his Tigers and their playoff chances. He dropped one F-bomb during the session and quickly apologized to the sole female reporter in the room. Like we said -- old school.

``I'm not going to panic," said the two-time Manager of the Year. ``We've done as well as we have because we've played good. If we continue to play good, we'll get in. If not, we won't.

``These guys have to go out between the lines and play the games and see if they're good enough. I don't have any magic for them. But I think we're gonna get in."

There was no computer on his desk. Leyland is not a John Henry/Bill James manager.

His Bengals burst out of the gate last night. Center fielder Curtis Granderson jumped on Josh Beckett's first pitch of the game and roped a triple down the right-field line. The first three Tigers reached and scored, and Detroit added another pair in the third on a bases-loaded Wall ball by Sean Casey. The Tigers padded their lead in the eighth when the Sox went a little too long with Rudy Seanez (Tito needs to use the Notre Dame game plan for this Rudy: one play, then out). Meanwhile, Robertson gave the Sox fits for six innings, then handed the ball over to Joel Zumaya (100 miles per hour, consistently) and Todd Jones.

The Sox helped out in the eighth when third base coach DeMarlo Hale suffered a Dale Sveum episode, sending Manny Ramírez to an untimely death at home plate. That was followed by Wily Mo Peña swinging viciously and missing a 102-m.p.h. Zumaya heater with two men aboard. Had Peña made contact with that pitch, 36,392 would be able to say they saw the longest home run in the history of baseball.

Instead, they saw the Tigers beat the Red Sox with old friend Jones (three outs on seven pitches) getti ng Coco Crisp for the final out.

``Getting the first one in Boston is good," said Jones. ``We face Curt Schilling [today] so this was big after losing five in a row."

Jones was there in Yankee Stadium in 2003, standing in the bullpen when Grady left Pedro in the game. He was at the end of his career, physically and mentally. Down and out. Just like the Detroit Tigers. Now he has 32 saves, second best in the American League. And he's going to be in the bullpen again in October.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail is

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