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Published: Friday, 6/22/2007

Rogers back in neighborhood

Kenny Rogers rehabbed briefly with the Mud Hens. He was a Tigers mainstay last season in their World Series run. Kenny Rogers rehabbed briefly with the Mud Hens. He was a Tigers mainstay last season in their World Series run.

WASHINGTON - Kenny Rogers is back, in more ways than one.

The Detroit Tigers ace makes his first start of the season tonight, less than three months after surgery to remove a blood clot from his left shoulder.

It would have been an uneasy procedure for any 42-year-old man, much less a major league pitcher who makes his living throwing with that arm.

And, as fate would have it, his first start will be in Atlanta, scene of one of the toughest moments of his long career.

Rogers hasn't pitched at Turner Field since 1999, when he walked Andruw Jones with the bases loaded in the 11th inning of Game 6 of the NL championship series. The base on balls sent the Braves to the World Series and ended the season for Rogers' team, the New York Mets.

"I've had a few games in the playoffs - that wasn't the best one," Rogers said. "I plan on improving on that."

Certainly the playoffs since have been kinder to Rogers.

Last season, he was vital in the Tigers' run to the World Series, winning all three of his postseason starts and becoming the oldest starting pitcher to win a World Series game.

His Game 2 victory was Detroit's only win in the five-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals. That win brought Rogers some extra attention - a smudge was discovered at the base of his left thumb, and he insisted it was a mix of mud, resin, spit and dirt.

No one is about to forget 1999, either. For a pitcher who once pitched a perfect game in the majors, it was far from a perfect performance - then again, his ability to put it behind him has kept the moment from ruining his career.

"That's part of baseball. If you can't handle failures, you're not going to be around very long," Rogers said. "I've failed plenty of times, but I've had a few successes along the way, so you take the good with the bad.

"It's been a long time. But most things like that, they drive you to do better, and drive you to learn from your mistakes. I'm no different."

Rogers has had his share of standard pitching injuries over the years - elbow surgery, tendinitis, shoulder ailments - but something new cropped up this year when his arm felt tired as he struggled with his control during his final spring training start.

Less than a week later, the blood clot was found. He had surgery to remove the clot and repair the arteries in his shoulder.

"When you first hear about it, it's scary," Rogers said. "But then you try and deal with it. Luckily they were able to fix it. I'm the beneficiary of doctors' abilities nowadays - multiple times over. They've had to patch me up a few times."

Rogers wasn't expected to return until July, but he rehabbed ahead of schedule and worked his way back into shape with two starts in the minors.

After an appearance with the Class A West Michigan Whitecaps he said he was more nervous than if he were pitching a major league game, and he high-fived a few of the fans in the sellout crowd.

"It's nice to know they appreciate an older pitcher still doing it," Rogers said.

Rogers' return is a boost for a Tigers team that is already in full stride. Detroit has won five of six - averaging nine runs per game over that span - and is tied with Cleveland for first place in the AL Central.

"I've seen a lot of hard work. I've seen a guy that's determined to get back and help this team," Tigers starter Justin Verlander said. "He knows he's an integral part of this team, and I think he's worked his butt off to get back to where he is now."

As with most players, Rogers said the hardest part of being injured was the "sitting and waiting and not being able to do anything."

"Whatever time I've got left, I want to go out there and pitch in a big league game - not rehabbing somewhere," he said.

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