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Will another late swoon doom Leyland?
The last time Jim Leyland was in the final year of his contract, the Tigers awarded him an extension at almost precisely this point of the season.
The date was June 19, 2009. Leyland signed a two-year deal to manage through 2011. End of uncertainty. End of discussion.
Different than now.
Both Leyland and general manager David Dombrowski are unsigned beyond this season. If Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was certain that he wanted both to return, he would have granted them extensions already.
I’d be surprised if Ilitch changed managers. I don’t think Leyland deserves to be fired. But Ilitch evidently wants to see more – and with good reason, considering that the Tigers under Leyland have played much better in the first half than the second.
It’s the big leagues, folks.
Even for a manager as accomplished as Leyland, it’s about results.
The Tigers, true to form, are in good shape as they approach the midway point – they’re 40-35, neck-and-neck with the Indians in the AL Central hunt, with a club that Leyland calls the most versatile of the six he has managed in Detroit.
The team is not perfect; the rotation beyond right-handers Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello is unsteady. But it’s hardly a stretch to say that the Tigers should be good enough to blow past the Indians and hold off the White Sox and – gasp – the Twins.
If they don’t?
Then Ilitch will face a choice.
Stick with Leyland, 66, or hire a younger, hipper Joe Maddon type to nurture the team’s young players. Right fielder Magglio Ordonez, 37, second baseman Carlos Guillen, 35, and closer Jose Valverde, 33, will be gone next season. The roster will skew even younger.
Leyland, naturally, professes no concern.
“I don’t even think about that, and that’s the truth,” Leyland said before the Tigers’ 6-1 loss to the Dodgers on Tuesday night. “I don’t think about it. It’s not something that is important to anybody at this time, the way I look at it. It makes no difference.
“If I get extended, does that mean we’re all of a sudden going to play better? It doesn’t mean anything to me. I said in spring training, I’m not going to talk about it. And I’m not going to talk about it because it just doesn’t make any sense.
“It is what it is. I’m a big boy. I want to manage. But I’ve always been a believer in this: If somebody thinks that they can get somebody better, they should get him. That’s what an owner should do.”
Leyland, however, made a point of saying that he is comfortable with young players, adding that his lineup Tuesday night included four of them – center fielder Austin Jackson, 24, right fielder Brennan Boesch, 26; left fielder Andy Dirks, 25; and catcher Alex Avila, 24.
“I don’t have any problems relating to young players,” Leyland said. “I get along with young players. I’m playing as many young players as anybody. People say we’re an old team. We’re not.”
Leyland was not defensive, but matter-of-fact. One of his former players, Dodgers outfielder Marcus Thames, practically laughed out loud at the notion that Leyland might be preoccupied with his contract status.
Leyland, Tony La Russa and most established managers are obsessed with one thing, and one thing only – winning the next game.
Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, the Pirates’ manager from 2000 to ’05, said he sees “absolutely no change” in Leyland.
“I’ve always said, I’ve never seen anyone prepare for a ballgame the way he does,” McClendon said. “I would say there is no way he feels any pressure.
“The toughest part of the job is answering the questions from you guys. The easiest part is dealing with players and going out to win baseball games. In that respect, I guarantee you he doesn’t miss a beat.”
Problem is, the Tigers’ second-half performances have not reflected Leyland’s passion and attention to detail.
In Leyland’s first five seasons, the Tigers were 231-174 (.618) in the first half, 193-213 (.475) in the second.
In ‘06, they blew a 12½-game lead over the Twins, but won the wild card and advanced to the World Series. In ’09, they blew a 5½-game lead over the Twins on Sept. 14 and lost a one-game playoff for the division title.
Still, every season is different. Players change, and so do circumstances. Last season, for example, the Tigers lost Guillen, Ordonez and third baseman Brandon Inge within a five-day span in late July. That was Leyland’s fault?
“A couple of years, we didn’t play real good in the second half,” Leyland said. “There were some reasons for it. Some guys probably wore down a little bit. Last year we lost three guys . . .
“This is a different group. I don’t put much stock in that. I think we’ll be fine.”
Another second-half fade, though, might compel Ilitch to act.
Eric Wedge, when he managed the Indians, drew criticism for the team’s poor starts; the perception among some was that he did not adequately prepare the club in spring training.
Leyland cannot be accused of wearing his players out; he actually gets criticized on occasion for resting his regulars. Does he manage tight in a pennant race? He wouldn’t be the first, but such a thing is difficult to prove.
The bottom line is, Leyland needs to win.
“It is what it is,” he said, shrugging.
No secrets. No excuses. Eighty-seven more games.
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