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ROIT -- Don Kelly's been called a versatile late-game defensive replacement. He's been called a decent pinch-runner and an overall great person to have around the clubhouse. But on Sunday, he was called something a bit different. He was called the hero.
The Tigers super utility man came through with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning against Oakland's Grant Balfour. His sacrifice fly to deep right-center field handed the Tigers a walk-off, 5-4 win and put the Tigers two games up in the American League Division Series heading to Oakland.
"Those are the moments that you live for," said Kelly of coming to bat with the 40,684 fans at Comerica Park on their feet, screaming and waving their white towels. "That's why you play the game. Just to be out there and help your team anyway you can, especially with the game on the line like that."
As a reward, 275 pounds of muscle in the form of Prince Fielder leaped into his arms. But Kelly had a different kind of feeling Sunday. He didn't fall or drop the hefty first baseman, he held him in the air.
"That's adrenaline," Kelly said laughing.
Sure, Kelly had little to do with loading the bases. It was Omar Infante and Miguel Cabrera who squeezed out two singles, and Fielder was intentionally walked.
But he happened to come up in a tight situation. And the 32-year-old Kelly succeeded in doing what neither Quintin Berry nor Alex Avila could with two runners in scoring position in the eighth. He plated the go-ahead run.
"With everything he's gone through this year, him and his family," Berry said. "And how much hard work he puts in, with him being a great guy and great teammate, he deserves it more than anybody."
It's been quite the journey for Kelly this season. He was designated for assignment in August, put on waivers and -- fortunately for the Tigers -- went unclaimed. He spent the next month in Triple-A Toledo before being selected as a September callup and making the postseason roster.
Despite his demotion, his teammates knew he'd wouldn't shrink in the spotlight. Just last season in a do-or-die Game 5 in Yankee Stadium, Kelly homered, and the one run proved to be the difference in the Tigers advancing.
"He got sent down and came back and we knew he was going to be a big part of our success," catcher Gerald Laird said. "It's going to take all 25 guys to ... get to a World Series and win one because Skipper, he relies on you. If you're on the roster you're going to play."
That faith from manager Jim Leyland paid off.
Leyland took some heat for electing to pinch-run Kelly in the eighth inning rather than Berry, who later pinch-hit for Avisail Garcia.
Not only is Berry the superior baserunner, but the move left the bench empty and Kelly would serve as Fielder's protection for the rest of the game, however long it lasted.
So, as expected, the A's put Fielder on base and put the game in Kelly's hands. And on the second pitch , a 93-mph heater, he managed to break through.
"Donnie's amazing," Avila said. "We love him here. We love him. He's a good professional. In the past, he's had good years here as a platoon guy and a guy coming off the bench, so you know he's always prepared for the job."
"I mean, I've always emphasized that since I've been here. That's what a team's all about," Leyland said. "Everybody making contributions."
And no contribution was greater than Kelly's.
Anthony Odoardi is an associate reporter for MLB.com.