Leyland not giving in to pressure of race
Detroit skipper says there's nowhere he would rather be
CHICAGO -- The look on Jim Leyland's face after Miguel Cabrera charged down the third-base line Tuesday in Cleveland said plenty about the way he's handling the pennant race.
Leyland has always hated the squeeze bunt, dreaded the feeling he gets as he waits for the opposing pitcher to deliver and for his hitter to square around. From his seat, he says, it seems like an eternity. After Brandon Inge squared around and fouled a bunt back while Cabrera took off, Leyland removed his hat for a second and scratched his head around the spot where plays like that have cost him some hairs over the years. But that won't stop him from trying it again.
If it could help get his team into the postseason, he'll accept the stress every time.
"He doesn't like to do it, but he knows when to do it," said Gene Lamont, Tigers third-base coach and Leyland's long-time friend and colleague.
It goes back to the message Leyland has relayed for over a month: For all the stress, the second-guessing, the lineup tweaks and the drama, this is where he wants to be. This, he says, should be fun for players and coaches alike.
If the Tigers hold off the Twins and reach the playoffs, Leyland will again have a chance to become the third manager in Major League history to win a World Series with teams in both leagues. His good friend, Tony La Russa, did it by beating Leyland's Tigers three years ago. Another Tigers skipper, Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson, became the first when he led the 1984 Tigers all the way.
"They're in a heck of a race," said La Russa, who talks with Leyland every day.
Compared with Leyland's 1997 World Series champion Florida Marlins, however, this year's Tigers might as well be from another planet, not just another league. For a team with one of the five highest payrolls in baseball this season, they've had underproduction or injuries to enough high-salaried players that they have the feel of a middle-payroll club.
It's a lineup with enough offensive struggles all season long that Leyland has tried just about everything he can think of that might help spark it, from batting Ryan Raburn leadoff against left-handers to sitting Magglio Ordonez for a stretch. He has called for more squeeze bunts than he did in three previous seasons managing the Tigers, including two in one game at Seattle back in April.
Even with his lineup relatively set now, he still makes maneuvers. Both Ordonez and Carlos Guillen are usually replaced in the corner outfield spots when the Tigers have a lead to protect in the late innings. He had been pinch-hitting for Guillen when a lefty reliever enters, until recently, when Guillen began switch-hitting again.
"He's always been concerned with some of the things," La Russa said. "They haven't been swinging really well. They have some starter problems. But I know how hard he's worked at it since day one of Spring Training."
With eight games left in the regular season, Leyland already has used as many lineups this year as he did with the 2006 team. With the American League Central race heading towards a defining four-game series against the second-place Twins, he isn't likely to change much more. He has pretty much set his lineup -- one for right-handers with Curtis Granderson leading off, one for left-handers with Raburn up top -- and he's going to stick with it.
He'll win or lose with his veterans. As the race heads into its final week, Leyland has downplayed all the discussion about the buttons he has pushed. When asked about the pressure, he cites one simple phrase.
"Either we're good enough," Leyland said, "or we're not."
It goes back to what he has said whenever he's asked about the manager's role in a race like this: The game is about the players. It's not about him, no matter what his history.
"You probably get too much credit when you win," Leyland said, "and too much blame when you lose. It's a players game, always has been."
The one thing he has emphasized to his players, win or lose, is to enjoy this.
"This is fun," he said. "You don't start making a big deal about it with a week [to go]. I'm not trying to do that. We've got our own destiny in our own hands. That's just the way it is. You either do it or you don't. And I feel very good where we're at, but you have to go out and win games.
"It's a fun time. We've got about a week to go. It doesn't get any better than this. You're in a pennant race. You're playing the team that's right behind you. You can't ask for any more than that. A lot of teams are eliminated already. We're still playing for something and in a pretty good position."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.