DETROIT — Delmon Young nearly lost his job in April. In October, he smashed the record books.
Almost six months after a drunken, anti-Semitic tirade in New York got him suspended for seven games — and at the end of a season that saw him frustrate everyone involved with the Tigers due to his lack of plate discipline — the calendar turned to October.
For the second consecutive season, that turned Young into a star.
This time, Young hit .294 with two homers and eight RBI in the four-game sweep of the Yankees, earning him the ALCS Most Valuable Player award and several historical notes.
He’s now the all-time leader in postseason homers for the Tigers, with seven, passing Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. Young also became the first player to drive in the game-winning run in all four games of a series.
“It’s great because your dream as a child is always to get the game-winning hit in Game 7 of the World Series, and now I know I’m going to get to go there,” he said. “My childhood dream was to play shortstop next to Chipper Jones, trying to beat the Yankees in the World Series.”
Young hit .316 with three homers in Detroit’s first-round ALDS victory over the Yankees last season. He hit two more in the ALCS loss to Texas despite struggling through an oblique injury.
“We gained a lot of experience last year by doing this together,” he said. “We got game time against New York, but then we played a hot Texas team.
“We knew that if we got another opportunity this year, we’d have a better shot at it.”
THE LONGEST OUT
Prince Fielder said it was the longest out of his career.
With the Tigers up 8-1 and two out in the ninth, Jayson Nix hit a routine pop fly to first base — routine to everyone in the stadium other than Fielder. The first baseman waved his arms in celebration, a grin spreading across his face, as he waited to make the catch.
“I thought the ball was never going to come down,” he said. “It was an awesome feeling because I knew I was going to catch it, but it stayed up there forever.”
Enough time for Fielder’s teammates to start the celebration early.
“As soon as the ball came off Nix’s bat, I knew the game was over,” Justin Verlander said. “I was already onto the field by the time Prince caught it. At least I think Prince was the one who caught it — I never did see that part.”
Austin Jackson was also celebrating long before Fielder actually caught the ball.
“You never want to take a game for granted, so I kept trying not to think about what was happening,” said Jackson, who will be playing in his first World Series. “But when that ball went up in the air, and I knew Prince and (second baseman) Omar (Infante) were both under it, that’s when it all became real. That’s when I knew we were going to the World Series.”
COURAGE OF COKE
There are some things that only Phil Coke can do.
The left-hander somehow transformed himself from a struggling middle reliever to a lights-out closer in the middle of the ALCS, but that’s just a matter of pitching superbly at the most important time of the season.
That’s nothing compared to his gutsiest achievement of Thursday night.
While his teammates were spraying each other with champagne, and Doug Fister was adding to the mayhem with large buckets of water, it was Coke who did what no one else was going to do. In the middle of the craziness, it was the eccentric Coke who grabbed a bottle of champagne, sprinted down a clubhouse hallway and doused Jim Leyland with a massive dose of bubbly.
Leyland attempted to get away, racing into his office bathroom, but Coke was relentless — finishing the job as emphatically as he had knocked off the Yankees in each of the ALCS’ final three games.
SMYLY TAKES IT ALL IN STRIDE
Rookie Drew Smyly has probably earned the right to not be considered a rookie anymore.
In Game 1 of the ALCS in New York, Smyly came in after Tigers closer Jose Valverde surrendered a 4-0 lead. Smyly held the Yankees to one hit in two scoreless innings, enabling his team to come back and win in the 12th inning.
Thursday, he came on with two on and two out in the sixth and retired pinch-hitter Alex Rodriguez on a flyball to center to end the Yankees’ final threat.
“I’m just blessed,” Smyly said on the field after the Tigers clinched a trip to the World Series. “I’m thankful for our coaches and management to have confidence in me and pitch me in those crucial situations.
“All I can do is go out there and do what I was taught to do. It’s been an unbelievable year.”
Smyly, 23, never appeared nervous or out of place, whether he was making regular-season starts or coming out of the bullpen in the playoffs.
“‘Cause this is fun, this is why you play,” Smyly said. “You dream of this feeling when you’re a kid playing T-ball to now. It’s just incredible.”
WIN ONE FOR THE OWNER
Tigers owner Mike Ilitch has won four Stanley Cups, but the one thing that has eluded him is the thing he values most — a World Series championship.
Now Ilitch, a former minor league ballplayer, is four wins away from his ultimate dream.
“I’ve got a great bunch,” Ilitch said. “We don’t have one hot dog in the bunch. They’re all good guys. They’re humble. They’re down to the Earth. They appreciate the fans to no end.
“I couldn’t be happier between the Red Wings and the Tigers. But Tigers are something special.”
Ilitch was also grateful to the many Tigers fans who supported the team through what had been an up-and-down season.
“My fans, three million,” Ilitch said. “My fans, you pumped my players up. It’s a big thrill.”
QUINTIN’S QUIET CELEBRATION
In the chaos of the Tigers’ clubhouse celebration, Quintin Berry stood alone, holding a bottle of champagne while quietly watching the party.
“I’m just trying to take this in,” he said. “It is all a little hard for me to believe.”
A year ago, Berry thought his baseball career might be over. The Reds had given up on him, as had the Phillies, Padres and Mets before them. He only found a job for 2012 because the Tigers were struggling for minor league depth. They signed him to fill a roster spot at Triple-A Toledo.
In his seventh minor league season, and first at the Triple-A level, he didn’t do a whole lot. He batted .270 with some walks, but he didn’t hit for any power and he was only a decent center fielder.
Then Austin Jackson got hurt, and a decent center fielder was exactly what the Tigers needed. Berry was called up in late May and things started to happen. His first major league hit was a bunt double, and after 10 games of his big league career, he was hitting .364 and had become an instant fan favorite.
Things didn’t stay that good, but he continued to make things happen. There was the five-hit game against Colorado. There was the first major league homer, in Pittsburgh, and another one in a key win over Chicago.
Most of all, there was his ability to create havoc on the bases. He wasn’t only the fastest player on a plodding team, he set an American League record by stealing 21 bases without being caught.
Now, a year after wondering if it was time to think about life after baseball, Berry is about to play on the game’s biggest stage.
“I was to the point where I never thought I was even going to get a chance to play in the major leagues,” he said. “Now I’m going to the World Series. I can’t even begin to tell you how good this feels.”
(Dana Wakiji and Steve Kornacki contributed to this report.)