Yankees vs.Tigers: Jim Leyland manages Detroit right into the ALCS


The Detroit Tigers' Don Kelly hits a home run off New York Yankees pitcher Ivan Nova in the first inning of the deciding Game 5. (Bill Kostroun/AP)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist October 6, 2011

Cagey, cool, craggy Jim Leyland won Game 5 of this American League Division Series for his Detroit Tigers on Thursday night, 3-2, over an apparently panicky Joe Girardi of the overwrought New York Yankees.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

They say managers don’t win games by themselves. Factually, it’s true. Don Kelly, the Tigers’ 25th man whom Leyland batted second on a hunch, and Delmon Young hit back-to-back homers in the first inning off the Yankees’ Ivan Nova. Doug Fister, the 6-foot-8 right-hander who was crunched in a Game 1 loss, got the win with five solid innings.

And, in the end, hard as it was to believe, Detroit closer Jose Valverde, who had the bravado, or lunacy, to guarantee a victory over the Yankees after the Tigers took a series lead after Game 3, finished Thursday’s clinching victory with a 1-2-3 ninth inning and a victory stomp of a dance on the Yankees’ own mound. Yes, that’s 51 for 51 in saves for him and still counting.

Highest payroll in baseball? All-star lineup? Home-field advantage? Take it wherever the Red Sox are now singing the blues and join them in a chorus.

All that pinstripe glamour and glory was torn to bits and shredded. And nobody had a larger hand in it than Leyland. The 66-year-old skipper did absolutely everything the loose manager of the underdog is supposed to do, even though he may be the least relaxed man alive. He even makes his constant cigarettes and black coffee nervous.

Meanwhile, everything Girardi did looked tight, worried and, in the end, seemed to reflect the tension in his team as they stranded runners all night. Alex Rodriguez went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts, including one with the bases full in the seventh inning as well as the game-ender.

“Because the Yankees are so good, this is probably the game I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Leyland said.

He used a lifetime of tricks, for sure.

First, Leyland forbade the best pitcher in baseball, his Justin Verlander, from pitching on two days’ rest, something many stars have done in postseason. He even had Verlander throw a side session earlier in the day to remove all doubt, even from his teammates’ minds. Thus, Leyland set himself, not his team, up as the potential goat.

Leyland even pranked Verlander, convincing him the side session had been a miscommunication and that he really wanted him for relief.

“I finally got one over on Verlander,” Leyland said. And the Tigers started the night laughing about the manager’s gags, not gagging themselves.

That decision shifted pressure, but it also committed Leyland to use far less heralded Max Scherzer, who won Game 2, as his first man into the game after Fister. Both notions worked as the pair combined for 61 / 3 innings and still handed a lead to the two-man Tigers back end of Joaquin Benoit and Valverde. Girardi had relievers by the gross. For such a game in such a thundering palace, Leyland had only two suitable men. Just enough.

Next, Leyland played a hunch with Kelly, saying: “You don’t get sentimental at this time of year. He deserves it. Good for Don Kelly.” Afterward, Leyland showed how much he’d actually led with his heart. “Stars like Miguel Cabrera are going to have a million days,” he said. “Donnie Kelly will have this one day — forever.”

On consecutive pitches in the first inning, Kelly and Young hit semi-cheap, back-to-back Yankee Stadium homers into the right field porch and the left field corner. As if any more data were needed to point out the poor execution of the supposed duplicate design of the old Yankee Stadium. Bandbox bites Bronx Bombers.

“A-Rod can spit it over the right field fence,” Leyland said. In the eighth with a man on, Derek Jeter hit a fly ball off the bat label, a can of corn everywhere. It was caught a yard from the top of the right field fence.

Sorry, Derek, no Jeffery Maier this time.

These genius-or-dope managerial moves are a narrow nervous thing in real time. Kelly, for example, also struck out three times. But, with hindsight, they become the stuff of talk-radio-received truth.

In total contrast to Leyland’s opening stated pregame plan — Fister, Scherzer, Benoit and Valverde, sink or swim — Girardi said he’d use a “by the gut” and “all-hands-on-deck” pitching plan with an implied quick hook for Nova, the rookie with the 16-4 record who won Game 1 effectively.

Did that undermine Nova’s confidence? He allowed those back-to-back homers and left the game after two innings with what the Yanks described as a “right forearm” that tightened up a little bit. History says such injuries, when they happen to Yankees at crucial postseason moments, may or may not exist. We may find out in Nova’s memoirs.

In contrast to Leyland banishing Verlander, Girardi advertised that his star southpaw, 290-pound CC Sabathia, would pitch in relief. Was this for the sake of intimidation? Sabathia has been inconsistent in previous postseasons, tends to be vulnerable early and had never pitched in relief in his professional career at any level.

By the time Sabathia entered to start the fifth inning, starter Phil Hughes had been used up, getting only four outs, as well as lefty Boone Logan. CC was greeted with a leadoff double, smacked for a two-out RBI single by Victor Martinez — which proved to be the game-winning run — and was taken out in mid-inning in the sixth after a walk. Nice way to treat your star.

The hum at Yankee Stadium might as well have been an electrical current attached to the seat under Girardi in his dugout. Was he taking “over-managing” to a new level and squandering the most precious game of the season? Or was Nova truly hurt, the two Tigers homers no fault of his and the 3-1, late-game deficit actually a credit to his manipulation of a shaky staff?

They say that the winners get to write history. In world events, that takes decades. In baseball, only nine innings is needed.

In win-or-go-home games, even players who seldom feel pressure suddenly swing at bad pitches or try too hard. To counteract this tendency, managers have tried for generations to set a relaxed tone. Leyland took the script to extremes I’ve never seen.

Normally, he looks like he just found four dead bodies in the trunk of an Elmore Leonard character’s car and can’t bear to ask Dutch how they got there. But before this game, he did stand-up comedy. As he actually said, “Some of the Yankees might be watching my news conference.” You think?

“I have an announcement to make,” Leyland began. “This will explain why you think I’m so old and grumpy and messed up. I got a telegram from a professor from a prominent university. I won’t tell you the university because I don’t want the place to empty out tomorrow. I am supposed to pitch Valverde the first five innings tonight, then pitch Verlander the last three, quote, ‘the seventh and eighth.’

“So that’s where we’re at. Are there any questions?”

Jim, are you and your Tigers uptight?

Girardi lost with his usual good grace. “I didn’t think it was a hard game to manage,” he said. “Hard to swallow.

A dozen twists could have turned this game the Yankees’ way. But they didn’t happen. So, the Tigers laugh last. And Leyland, who often appears recently exhumed and is definitely the least likely man to lead the chuckles, can certainly laugh loudest.

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