The hour was late, the margin was tight, and the New York Yankees were forever one swing away from rousing their October ghosts. In the first winner-take-all postseason game at the new Yankee Stadium, in front of the largest crowd to gather there, the smart money said the underdog Detroit Tigers would be the victim, not the victor.
The bottom of the seventh inning felt like that moment when the Yankees would be the Yankees, and the howling fans knew it. The Tigers were clinging to a 3-1 lead, which didn’t seem nearly big enough after they spoiled several chances to add on runs. Then goofy things started happening.
Detroit left fielder Delmon Young exited with an oblique injury. Reliever Joaquin Benoit was forced to remove a bandage covering an ingrown hair on his face, then surrendered a base hit. Robinson Cano, the Yankees’ best hitter, loaded the bases on a 70-foot dribbler.
How, exactly, did the Tigers plan on getting all of those outs? Detroit manager Jim Leyland needed to cover 2 2/3 innings with just two relievers. Leyland’s best pitcher, Justin Verlander, was a mere spectator.
Verlander had started three nights before, and Leyland repeatedly — and colorfully — ruled out the possibility that his ace would pitch in relief during this fifth and deciding game of the American League Division Series.
So, Verlander put on a hoodie and watched the most important game of the season from the dugout. And at some point during those tense late innings, amid the commotion of 50,960 screaming New Yorkers, Verlander noticed something peculiar about his manager.
“He was singing,” Verlander said.
“Yeah,” Verlander continued. “One of the songs that came on the PA. I don’t know what song it was. But he was over there checking the lineup, and he started singing. I was like, ‘What?’”
A cursory glance at videotape from the Yankees dugout suggests that New York manager Joe Girardi did not sing during Thursday’s game.
Now, is that why the Tigers held on to win, 3-2, and earn a berth in the AL Championship Series? Does that explain how Benoit, despite walking in one run in that crucial seventh, avoided a catastrophe by striking out Alex Rodriguez and Nick Swisher? Did Leyland’s intonations inspire the oft-erratic Jose Valverde to an 11-pitch, 1-2-3 save in the ninth?
Of course not. But it did reflect the coolness with which the Tigers approached this decisive game. Leyland, 66 years old and in his sixth postseason as a manager, has either arrived at a state of October nirvana or is faking it really well.
It started before the game, when Leyland sat in front of scores of reporters at Yankee Stadium and turned on the charm.
“I have an announcement to make,” he declared. “I got a telegram today from a professor from a prominent university. These are my instructions for tonight. I won’t tell you the university, because I don’t want the place to empty out tomorrow. But I will tell you I am supposed to pitch Valverde the first five innings, then I’m supposed to pitch Verlander the last three — the seventh and eighth.
“So, that’s where we’re at. Are there any questions?”
The tale, real or imagined, brought immediate and hearty laughter from every corner of the room. Leyland went on to talk about the suit he bought in New York — “It’s a humdinger,” he assured us — and later recounted how he fooled Verlander into thinking that he was supposed to be available in the bullpen on Thursday, despite Leyland’s public insistences to the contrary.
“I finally got one over on Justin Verlander,” he gloated.
With Girardi, there was none of that. He talked about the availability of his ace, CC Sabathia, out of the bullpen. He addressed the outlook for his rookie starter, Ivan Nova. (Profound stuff: “I expect him to go out and pitch well.”) He remarked that left fielder Brett Gardner is, in fact, “a good player.” Girardi didn’t appear to be having fun with Game 5. Over the hours that followed, neither did his team. Judging by the boos for Rodriguez — who batted .111 in the series — it’s as if 2009 never happened.
The Tigers, meanwhile, were looser than they should have been. That is a credit to their manager. With the season on the line, Leyland’s No. 2 hitter was third baseman Don Kelly — the 25th man on the roster, a popular and unselfish utility player who appeared at first, third, all three outfield positions and catcher this season. He even pitched.
Leyland had a high batting average with his lineup tweaks throughout the series — much like Bruce Bochy did during the Giants’ World Series run last year. On Thursday, he explained the Kelly move by saying, in part, “I think he deserves to be in there … It’s kind of a nice story.”
Well, after introducing himself to Reggie Jackson on the field before the game, Mr. Nice Story hit the second pitch he saw into the right-field seats.
“I floated around the bases,” Kelly said later. “I had to ask (Ryan) Raburn if I actually touched second and third.”
Leyland has always had a soft spot for Kelly, 31, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area while Leyland was managing the Pirates. Kelly used to watch Leyland manage postseason games like this on television. He remembers how exciting it was to work with Andy Van Slyke — his favorite Pirate — on Leyland’s coaching staff in Detroit two years ago.
Kelly isn’t an All-Star, like Van Slyke was. But on Thursday night, he hit the home run that put the Tigers ahead to stay in the decisive game of a playoff series at Yankee Stadium. This is what Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski was talking about, when he said of Leyland, “He’s got a real pulse of the club. He likes the players — likes how they match up, how they fit together. He’s done a fantastic job.”
Sure, there were nervous moments for the Tigers as the clock crept toward midnight. Derek Jeter’s bid for a go-ahead homer in the eighth inning fell just a few feet shy of the wall. Kelly, who by then had moved to right field, said he could feel the fans’ breath as he retreated to the warning track to make the catch.
Much of the crowd was standing as the Yankees batted from the seventh inning onward. But there are two types of standing crowds at Yankee Stadium — those that are intimidating, and those that are anxious. This one was the latter.
Their team was held to one run over five innings by Detroit starter Doug Fister, an easygoing 27-year-old Californian who hung around New York with his father, Larry, on Thursday afternoon and enjoyed a customary pregame trip to Chipotle. The Yankees selected Fister in the fifth round of the 2005 amateur draft – but didn’t sign him.
Valverde’s appearance promised to be as fretful as the previous eight innings combined, particularly with Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, and Rodriguez due up. This was the Yankees’ chance to exact the best sort of revenge for Valverde’s previous boast — even if it was in jest — that the series would end in Detroit on Tuesday night. The crowd showered him with boos as he jogged in from the bullpen — christening him, perhaps, as the successor to Pedro Martinez as New York’s favorite October villain.
When asked how confident he felt as he took the mound, Valverde smiled and replied, “Confident? I was so nervous.” But like his manager, he didn’t look it. The threat never materialized. Together, the Tigers defied the notion that a team from Detroit isn’t supposed to beat the Yankees by one run, in this ballpark, in this month.
And so when Victor Martinez found Dombrowski in the clubhouse and ambushed him with Fre — the alcohol-free wine used in the team’s celebration — Martinez yelled, “WE BELIEVE! WE BELIEVE!” as he emptied the bottle onto Dombrowski’s head.
The slogan isn’t unique, or catchy, or even official, as far as I can tell. But it fits this team. Leyland has made it so.