Leyland shows faith in Verlander in Tigers' big win
What was once a five-run lead became four, then three, then two, then one. Jason Kubel had just smacked Justin Verlander's 125th pitch into the gap for a run-scoring double, and pretty much everyone at Comerica Park figured the Tigers' 26-year-old ace was through.
Two out. Eighth inning. Tying run at second. Closer Fernando Rodney was warming up. And here came Jim Leyland from the dugout. It was time for Verlander to go. Fans scrambled to put down their plastic cups so they could stand up and offer their guy a rightful salute.
No, wait. Leyland arrived at the mound, uttered maybe a dozen words and pivoted back toward the dugout. It took a moment or two before the reaction fully registered among the crowd of 30,240.
DUDE, DID YOU SEE THAT? LEYLAND LEFT HIM IN!
At the most crucial juncture of the American League Central race, audacity carried the day. Leyland scored one for the old-timers when he left a strong-yet-tiring pitcher on the mound in his team's biggest game of the season, and he was rewarded handsomely for the show of faith.
Four pitches later, the inning was over. The dangerous Michael Cuddyer, a consistent hero for Minnesota, tapped out to third base. Verlander walked off the mound with the lead and a bold 129-pitch effort.
After losing a 10-inning epic to open a memorable day-night doubleheader, the Tigers needed to make a statement in the nightcap. And Leyland apparently concluded that timidity wasn't going to cut it. Following their manager's lead, the Tigers restored their two-game lead with a pulsating 6-5 victory.
"Opening Day, ninth inning, one-run lead, my heart's pumping no different than it is right now — pretty fast," Leyland said afterward. "I'll have a Marlboro to slow it down."
But before we go any further, let's revisit that exchange on the mound. The moment had that much gravity. The words spoken there will surely live on in Detroit sports lore, the stuff of barroom retellings and T-shirt catchphrases.
That would be the case — if only Leyland and Verlander could actually agree on what was said.
Leyland's version: "I basically told him, 'I don't have anybody better than you.' That's the line I usually use. With him, I mean it. Once in a while, you're not quite so sure. But with him, I mean it."
Verlander's version: "When he came out of the dugout, I was (looking) back and forth between him and the bullpen. ... He just came out. It was quick. He said, 'Hey, this is your guy. Go get 'em.'"
But what about Leyland telling Verlander that he didn't have anyone better?
"He said that awhile ago — I think he said that in Chicago," Verlander said, smiling. "One of his go-to lines."
OK. Maybe it isn't essential to get our hands on the transcript. The more important thing was the impact Leyland's decision — and Verlander's performance — had on the AL's Last Race Going.
If Cuddyer had pulverized Pitch No. 129 into the left field seats, the Twins and Tigers might be tied atop the division as you read this. Or if Cuddyer had doubled home Kubel on a too-straight Rodney fastball, they still might be playing Game 2.
Instead, Detroit took command of the division race once more. Even after the Twins' thrilling victory in Tuesday's opener, the Tigers are assured of no worse than a tie for first place entering their weekend series against the White Sox.
A lot changed over nine short innings.
"We answered," catcher Gerald Laird said.