Leyland enjoying quite a ride with Tigers
It's becoming almost a daily ritual in these American League playoffs: Jim Leyland acknowledges his team is in a tough spot, talks about what a terrific postseason this is - and without a hint of resignation in his voice, commends his players for their resolve.
Now in his 20th season as a major league manager, Leyland has won two pennants and a World Series. This year's Detroit Tigers have work to do if they want to add to his haul - they trail the Texas Rangers 3-2 in the AL championship series. But no matter what happens this weekend when the teams meet again, Leyland seems determined to enjoy every moment.
''I don't know if I've ever been prouder of a team than this one,'' Leyland said Friday.
Before Game 5, with his team trailing 3-1 in the series, Leyland sounded as comfortable as ever. The Tigers were facing elimination, their top two relievers overworked and unavailable. Two important outfielders were out injured, and at least three remaining starters had been playing through pain.
There had been rain delays, extra-inning losses and some untimely slumps threatening to end Detroit's season - but the 66-year-old skipper couldn't help but marvel at what was becoming a fascinating series.
''These have been great baseball games,'' Leyland said. ''You could not ask for anything more than this club has given us and given the fans, and you couldn't ask for anything more than what the fans have given to us. This is not over yet. Trust me.''
And it wasn't. The Tigers won 7-5 on Thursday, with Justin Verlander throwing 133 pitches and banged-up outfielder Delmon Young hitting a pair of home runs. Detroit survived to play another game, Saturday night at Texas - at least one more chance for Leyland to savor this most rewarding of seasons.
At the start of the year, Leyland faced an uncertain future. Four seasons had passed without a playoff berth since he took the Tigers to the World Series in 2006, his first year as their manager.
His contract was set to expire after the 2011 season. Leyland admitted he was under pressure but declared that topic essentially off limits.
No novelty there. Leyland is an engaging manager, willing to chat with reporters in his office for around a half-hour on some days, holding court on a variety of topics, such as the MVP race, postseason expansion - even his superstition of not changing underwear during a Detroit winning streak last month. But when he tires of a subject, he makes that clear.
This year, questions about the lineup were taboo at times. Leyland was OK with second guessing but had little interest in explaining or justifying each daily tweak.
And there were plenty of them. Whether he was giving spot starts to role players or running defensive replacements onto the field in the late innings, Leyland wasn't shy about using his whole roster.
The juggling act goes on in these playoffs - partly out of necessity. Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez hit fourth and fifth all season. With injuries mounting, Leyland moved Cabrera to third in the order and hit Martinez cleanup, and those two have done their part to extend Detroit's season.
''Whatever he wants to do, I'll do it. If he wants to bat Cabrera leadoff, I'll hit second,'' Martinez said. ''It's all about trust, and that is the thing with him. He trusts you to go out and do what you do, and you trust him.''
After a slow start, the Tigers hovered around the top of the mediocre AL Central for a while. Anyone doubting Leyland's passion needed only to watch his performance on June 27. After Detroit's Andy Dirks was called safe at first base - incorrectly, according to replays - the first-base umpire reversed himself and called Dirks out.
What followed was perhaps the season's most entertaining ejection. Leyland argued with the umpires for several minutes, at one point providing his own safe-then-out re-enactment of the two conflicting calls.
On Aug. 8, with the Tigers leading the division by four games, Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski received contract extensions, Leyland's a one-year deal for next season. Detroit went 34-14 the rest of the way and won the Central by 15 games.
The Tigers clinched the division in mid-September, and although their title seemed like a formality by then, Leyland fought back tears during the celebration. The scene was similar after Detroit won at Yankee Stadium earlier this month in the decisive fifth game of the division series.
''That's one of the reasons I love that guy. When he gets emotional, I know he cares,'' third baseman Brandon Inge said. ''When he gets attached to a group of guys which he calls his own team, he wants to win. He wants to do really well for them. That's probably why he gets emotional.''
That's coming from someone who was a starter at the beginning of the season but is now a part-time player. Inge struggled so badly he was sent down to the minors at one point, and Leyland now picks and chooses when he plays.
Of course, just about everyone is being asked to contribute. Leyland hasn't made every right call - he intentionally walked Adrian Beltre in the 11th inning of Game 4, only to have the next two Texas hitters break open the game with a single and a homer - but there are plenty of success stories.
Leyland has resisted the urge to use Verlander on short rest, and other pitchers have come through. In Game 3 of the division series against New York, Leyland moved Ramon Santiago up to second in the batting order, and the little second baseman drove in two runs. In Game 5 of that series, utilityman Don Kelly made a surprising appearance in the No. 2 spot - and he homered on his first trip to the plate.
''I'm not afraid to play anybody. I think we've shown that during the season,'' Leyland said. ''Some people have the tendency to think when you play your regulars every day you win every game. It doesn't work that way.''
The Tigers need two more wins to earn an improbable trip to the World Series, which Leyland won in 1997 with the Florida Marlins.
A return to baseball's October showcase would be quite an ending for a remarkable year - especially if Leyland ends up facing good friend Tony La Russa. Leyland keeps in touch with the St. Louis manager and is trying as best he can to follow the Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers in the NLCS.
That series is becoming more interesting with each game - much like Leyland's matchup with the Rangers. The veteran manager appreciates all of it, enjoying the ride as long as it lasts.
''If you see the injuries and everything around the way these guys are playing, how can you not be satisfied with this?'' Leyland said. ''Would I rather be up 3-2? Yes. But I have no problems no matter how this turns out. We're going to keep playing. I don't know how - what the score is going to be - but we're going to keep playing.''