DETROIT — A legendary manager, in the final year of his contract, rallied a formerly underachieving team to a playoff berth in the final series of the regular season. A burst of success in the division series followed, along with it the opportunity to write the final chapter of his legacy.
That was Tony La Russa in 2011.
That is Jim Leyland in 2012.
The circumstances aren’t identical — at least not yet. La Russa’s Cardinals won the World Series. Leyland’s Tigers have yet to advance to the ALCS, although they hold a 2-0 series lead over Oakland.
What the close friends have in common, though, is the ability to leverage October wins in determining their destinies. La Russa won it all and walked away. That was his choice. Leyland, unsigned beyond the Tigers’ final game this year, has said publicly that he wants to continue managing. With each victory, the odds increase that the Tigers will want him back.
“He doesn’t care if his butt’s on the line,” Tigers catcher Gerald Laird said. “He just wants to win baseball games. He’s calm and collected. He puts his players in good situations. All he’s about is winning and playing baseball. His life’s around the game. I just hope he gets a chance to come back.”
Leyland’s uncertain status became a popular topic of discussion in Detroit during the final weeks of the season. It appeared Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, who authorized a $140 million payroll, wanted to see more before agreeing to bring back the 67-year-old Leyland for another season. If the favored Tigers had lost the division to the upstart Chicago White Sox, then it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see Ilitch make a change. Leyland, when asked about his future, offered a similar response every time: “That will take care of itself.”
Now the case for a contract extension is building, one handshake line after another. Laird said Leyland did a “great job” of insulating his players from questions about his job security during the anxious final month of the regular season. Now the Tigers, as American League Central champions, are one of the hottest teams in baseball’s grand tournament. If the Tigers win the pennant, an offer to return in 2013 should become a formality.
Or perhaps Leyland will do as La Russa did — win it all and walk away.
“I don’t know,” questioned Laird, who won a ring with the Cardinals last year. “The skipper’s got a lot more years in him. You can see his passion about the game. He loves being here every day. This guy is all about baseball. He wants to win.
“All year, we’ve had ups and downs. We had to fight for our division. We had to fight for (Sunday’s) game to take a 2-0 lead. Teams reflect their manager, and these guys love playing for him.”
We can debate whether experienced players truly have an advantage in the postseason. But for dugout decision-makers, there is no doubt: It helps to have been there before. The games are so tense, and move so quickly, that a veteran manager can be the difference between champagne and sorrow. Save for the phone gaffe in Game 5 of last year’s World Series, La Russa was brilliant in deploying his bullpen to cover for an undermanned starting rotation.
Now the time has come for Leyland to give his team a tactical edge. With the Tigers trailing by a run, Leyland deployed two pinch hitters and two pinch runners in the eighth inning Sunday. That reflected a greater urgency than Leyland showed during the regular season, when the Tigers ranked 26th among the 30 major-league teams in pinch-hit appearances. Leyland used only 75 pinch hitters in all — an average of less than one for every two games. By that rate, he used four days’ worth in a single inning of Game 2.
And it worked, sort of. Although pinch hitters Quintin Berry and Alex Avila struck out, pinch runner Don Kelly scored the tying run on a wild pitch. The other pinch runner — infielder Danny Worth, who entered for the plodding Jhonny Peralta — made a game-saving play at shortstop in the next inning. Then Kelly, the longtime Leyland favorite, won it with a sacrifice fly.
Leyland has been managing aggressively for weeks, in part because he had little choice. Leyland kept struggling outfielder Brennan Boesch in the everyday lineup longer than many managers would have, believing his power potential was more valuable than Berry’s speed. Boesch has been with the organization longer than Berry, and Leyland, loyal to a fault, tends to side with players who have tenure. But the tipping point came after the Tigers fell three games back with a Sept. 17 loss in Chicago, in which Boesch went 0-for-4 and stranded five runners.
The energetic Berry started in left field the next day and has played every meaningful game since against right-handed pitching. The Tigers won the division with an 11-5 flourish over their final 16 games. Boesch made only two more starts and was left off the AL Division Series roster.
During the regular season, Leyland makes decisions with the long run in mind — resting a regular here, nurturing a player’s ego there. But October is the month of short-run baseball. That brings out the best in Leyland, a world champion with the Marlins in 1997. He minimizes sentimentality in his decision-making. He closes off distractions for his players, emphasizing focus and preparation. He preaches professionalism without holding team meetings. So far, the Tigers have responded.
The biggest obstacle between the Tigers and the World Series is a leaky bullpen, which was on display again in Game 2. Joaquin Benoit turned a one-run lead into a one-run deficit in the eighth, and Phil Coke permitted two baserunners in the ninth before the eccentric Al Alburquerque rescued him with Yoenis Cespedes’ kiss-me comebacker.
In sinkerball starter Rick Porcello — on the ALDS roster as a reliever — Leyland has an intriguing setup option if Benoit’s struggles continue. But Leyland insisted Sunday that he will stay with Benoit, just as he did with Boesch for so many weeks. “He’s our eighth-inning guy,” Leyland said Sunday. “It’s that simple. It’s been that way since he’s been here. That’s not going to change. So it is what it is. … If Benoit is fresh and we have the lead in the eighth, he’s going to be in there.”
So that’s that — for now, at least. Even if they disagree, the most impulsive Tigers fans ought to give Leyland the benefit of the doubt here. He’s earned that much with his performance over the past three weeks — if not the last seven seasons. One more victory might be all he needs to ensure that he comes back for an eighth, and history says he’s going to get it: It’s been 21 years since Leyland lost a postseason series in which his team won the first game.
At the end of a turbulent season, these things remain true of Leyland: He has more wins than any active manager. He has a better résumé than the conceivable candidates to replace him. And in October, with so much at stake, he has the steady hand.