Five years have passed since the Detroit Tigers last reached the playoffs, five years since one swing turned Magglio Ordoñez into a Michigan folk hero, five years since the founding of a “Jim Leyland for Governor” Facebook group.
If a public opinion poll had been conducted Monday, with the Tigers in the throes of a seven-game losing streak, Leyland might have received the lowest approval rating of his tenure in Detroit. Fans were baffled by his lineups, confounded by his bullpen maneuvering, frustrated by a team performing below expectations.
So much has changed in 48 hours.
Scott Sizemore and his smoldering bat arrived from Toledo. Victor Martinez came off the disabled list. Max Scherzer dominated the New York Yankees on Wednesday, two nights after Justin Verlander could not. And a 24-year-old rookie named Alberto Albuquerque, who had zero days of major league service prior to this season, spun a magic slider to get the final three outs of a 4-0 triumph over the Yankees.
See? Jim Leyland didn’t forget how to manage after all.
The Tigers are still a long way from first place in the American League Central. In fact, they remain three games below .500. But they have a pulse, in a winnable division led by a Cleveland Indians team that can’t possibly be as good as it looks right now.
With the return of Martinez, Leyland made the lineup changes the masses so desired: Brennan Boesch, in his first full season, will bat third; Martinez is back from his groin injury and in the No. 5 spot as protection for superstar Miguel Cabrera; Ordoñez, mired in a slump, is now hitting sixth.
Because of Ordoñez’s struggles, the Tigers had the worst production in the No. 3 spot (by OPS) of any team in the league. The statistics screamed for a change. Leyland finally made it.
“I’m going to give you guys my test,” Leyland told the reporters in his office Wednesday afternoon. “You guys want to talk about lineups all the time, and I understand that. But write your lineup down. Put it on a card. Sign your name to it. I want to look at it.”
Fair enough. Think of my byline as a virtual signature.
I don’t always agree with Leyland, but in this case I do. With existing personnel, against a right-handed starter, I would write in Austin Jackson, Sizemore, Boesch, Cabrera, Martinez, Ordoñez, Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila and Brandon Inge, as Leyland did Wednesday night.
And no, I didn’t decide that after Boesch, Cabrera, Martinez and Ordoñez each scored a run in the win.
Boesch, who is more selective than during his rookie year, is about as ready as he’s going to be for the challenge of hitting third. And an important consideration here is that Ordoñez, 37 years old and recovering from right ankle surgery, is no longer a 20-homer, 100-RBI slugger. The ankle stiffness will probably prevent him from being an everyday right fielder, at least until the warmer weather comes. For the time being, Ryan Raburn and Casper Wells will need to spell him in the outfield.
So let’s not get carried away by Ordoñez’s third-inning home run against Freddy Garcia, his first of the season. Garcia, his friend and Venezuelan countryman, admitted later he threw Ordoñez a mistake fastball — about the only pitch he could have hit out of the park.
There is a reason Ordoñez has only two extra-base hits in 80 at-bats: He can’t drive off his right leg like he once did. One swing didn’t change that.
But Ordoñez is a pro. He has terrific hand-eye coordination. And if the ankle gets better as the season goes along, as Leyland expects, the Tigers can expect something on the order of what Jose Guillen and Jeff Francoeur offered their teams last year. Not great. Not bad, either.
“With five months left to play, as long as he doesn’t tweak that (ankle), he’s still going to hit,” said Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson, who played with Ordoñez in Detroit. “His approach is the same. You can see that. If they give you holes to certain sides of the field, he’s trying to take advantage of it. He was able to execute tonight.”
Ordoñez is a smart hitter, a former batting champion. Even in his diminished state, he can take a mistake pitch like the one Garcia threw and send it into the gap for a double. And pitchers are more likely to make a mistake after they deal with Boesch, Cabrera and Martinez.
Without Martinez, though, this lineup shuffle wouldn’t work. The Tigers played 13 games while he was out. They went 5-8.
During that time, Cabrera was walked 10 times — five intentional.
“That’s exactly why we got Victor Martinez,” Leyland said. “That’s why we wanted Victor Martinez, to hit behind Miguel Cabrera. They’re still going to walk Miguel Cabrera, but that’s why we got Victor. He’s a good guy to hit behind him.”
The walks will continue unabated until Martinez demonstrates that his power has returned. Really, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Managers had no qualms about pitching around Cabrera early this season, even before Martinez went on the disabled list.
Go back to April 11. The Tigers trailed the Rangers, 2-0, in the bottom of the ninth. Cabrera came up as the tying run. Rangers manager Ron Washington intentionally walked him anyway. Martinez rolled out to second base and Washington looked like a genius.
Rest assured, opposing managers will continue this against-the-book behavior. Cabrera will be walked when first base is occupied. He is that good.
The only difference is that with Boesch ahead of him and Martinez behind him, the Tigers are in position to make it hurt.
It may have taken him a little while, but now Leyland has it right.