DETROIT — It’s difficult deciding which was more improbable:
∙ Don Kelly driving in the winning run for the Tigers in Sunday’s 5-4 victory over the Oakland A’s to go up 2-0 in the American League Division Series.
∙ Kelly lifting Prince Fielder at first base to begin the celebration.
∙ Kelly making the 25-man postseason roster after being designated for assignment on Aug. 3.
The playoffs have a way of turning up such heroes, and Kelly is the latest end-of-the-bench wonder to make his mark.
Just 18 hours before dozens of reporters engulfed Kelly and TV cameras were held above the crowd to capture his every word, he was alone in the clubhouse after the opening victory when I approached him.
“You know,” Kelly said, “people have actually asked me this question: ‘Are you glad the Tigers put you on the postseason roster?'”
He stepped back, eyes bulging and laughed.
“Well, yeah,” Kelly said. “What do they think I’d rather be doing? Sitting at home, watching it on TV along with the football games?
“This is where you want to be — right here.”
Kelly made the roster along with infielder Danny Worth — while homer-capable outfielder Brennan Boesch was left off — because they’re versatile as defenders and good base-runners. Both were called upon to pinch-run in the eighth inning, when Kelly scored the tying run on a wild pitch by Ryan Cook.
After Worth made a key play on a grounder in the hole in the top of the ninth to get a fielder’s-choice out, Kelly came up with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom half of the ninth after Fielder was intentionally walked.
Kelly drew a deep breath as he approached the batter’s box, then took a practice swing while Oakland closer Grant Balfour stepped off the mound to talk with shortstop J.D. Drew. After Balfour walked back to toe the rubber, Kelly, looking for a fastball, took a first-pitch slider for a strike.
Then he got the fastball and drove it high and deep. The sellout crowd at Comerica Park erupted because they knew it would easily score Omar Infante from third base once right fielder Josh Reddick caught it.
Kelly jogged to first base, where Fielder was standing, and didn’t know what to do. So he did something totally illogical and yet wonderful. The rangy, 190-pound Kelly lifted the 275-pound slugger off the ground.
“That’s adrenaline!” Kelly told reporters.
Fielder was asked to confirm it.
“Yes, he did,” Fielder said. “Am I surprised he could do that? No, no. Not in that situation. He was fired up.”
Kelly probably could’ve lifted Detroit Lions offensive lineman Ndamukong Suh at that instant.
“Those are the moments that you live for,” Kelly said. “That’s why you play the game. That’s been my whole career — battling — and I was able to come through.”
His eyes sparkled and his smile widened before he added, “I thank my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. That’s where I draw my strength.
“This year has been a little tough from a numbers standpoint.”
The Tigers sent him to Toledo two months ago, but recalled him when rosters expanded last month. Kelly ended up batting .186 with one homer and seven RBI in 75 games.
“But when his number was called today, Donnie was ready,” Tigers ace Justin Verlander said. “It’s just great to see this happen for him.”
Kelly said playing in last year’s postseason — when he hit a bases-empty homer in a 3-2 victory over the New York Yankees in Game 5 of the ALDS — helped his confidence as he faced Balfour.
“I knew he was going to do it,” said his father-in-law, Tom Walker, who pitched for the Tigers in 1975. “He’s a very determined young man, and he cares for people.”
Those are just some of the qualities that caused former Tiger Brandon Inge, now on the injured list with the A’s, to tell me that his teammate most likely to someday manage in the majors is Kelly.
He knows what it’s like to play every position, to communicate, to endure, to succeed and put it all in perspective.
“Donnie was positive through everything,” said his mother, Evie Kelly, bouncing his 1-year-old son, Luke, in her arms in the concourse outside the clubhouse. “He has such a great attitude.
“Oh, we screamed when he hit that ball and we waved our towels.”
Asked if she saw him lift Fielder, Evie’s eyes widened and she became a concerned mother.
“No!” she said. “Really?”
Don Kelly, the castoff turned hero, had just delivered Detroit’s first postseason walk-off win since Magglio Ordonez’s homer beat Oakland and sent the Tigers to the 2006 World Series.
“You can’t describe it,” Kelly said. “It’s almost surreal to come through like that.”