Leyland sure to be second-guessed

BY foxsports • October 12, 2011

Jim Leyland was one bad throw away from looking like a genius. Instead, it’s high season for second-guessing in Detroit. The Tigers, talented and gritty but maybe not quite good enough, are on the brink of elimination.

This story begins Wednesday afternoon, long before the tension-building rain delay, the four hours of thrilling plot turns, and the latest theatric marvel in this riveting postseason. Before a pivotal Game 4 in the American League Championship Series, Leyland took stock of his gimpy team and decided on a lineup he’d never used before.

Miguel Cabrera, his cleanup hitter in all but four games during the regular season, would bat third. Delmon Young, the No. 3 batter with the ailing oblique, was dropped to fifth. Victor Martinez and his strained intercostal muscle were sandwiched between them.

And there was a moment, as a fly ball arched and 42,234 voices yelped, when it seemed like that decision would save the Tigers’ season.

You see, in a game that was tighter than the middle seat on a turboprop, it was the other manager who offended good sense with the score tied 3-3 in the eighth inning. Ron Washington was so intimidated by suddenly grooving Cabrera that he walked the Detroit slugger intentionally with one out and the bases empty. Yes, the Texas manager willfully put the go-ahead run on base — perhaps wagering that the next two staggering sluggers would pull every last ribcage muscle while trying to catch up to Mike Adams’ fastball.

Well, Washington was wrong. Martinez pulled a fastball through the right side, Cabrera lumbered to third, and the Tigers were one sacrifice fly from taking the lead.

Imagine the exhilaration Leyland must have felt, behind the gray mustache and fixed glare and the occasional dugout fidget. The Rangers had given him a free baserunner — and they did it because Leyland had engineered his lineup so Cabrera would have that at-bat. Now Young, who struck out just twice in 25 postseason plate appearances entering the game, could send the bubbling ballpark into hysterics with a just-deep-enough fly ball. And on the fourth pitch, he did.

At least, that’s what the screeching sellout thought. But Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz, the undisputed MVP of this series, played it perfectly. He galloped over, settled underneath and wired a one-hop throw just as soon as the ball popped into his glove. The ball shot toward home plate as if launched from one of those T-shirt cannons.

Cabrera was out. The opportunity was lost. And Leyland, no longer a soothsayer, was back at the whim of an undermanned bullpen, which meant the ultimate outcome was not a surprise: Rangers 7, Tigers 3, in 11 innings. The long Michigan winter is now one loss away.

“Other than Austin Jackson, I don’t know that anybody (on the team) would have made it if he threw it on the money,” Leyland said, perhaps anticipating the critics who will suggest he should have inserted a pinch runner for Cabrera. “It was the right call. Cruz threw it on the money.”

That is the essence of postseason baseball: Leyland made excellent moves for much of the day and night. But Cruz’s bazooka forced the game into extra innings — where the Detroit manager made at least one decision that may be lamented until spring training.

It came in the bottom of that 11th. Closer Jose Valverde, nearing exhaustion after pitching extensively for a third straight day, surrendered a leadoff double to Josh Hamilton but recovered to strike out cleanup man Michael Young with a nasty splitter. Two more outs from Papa Grande and Cabrera would lead off the bottom of the inning with the chance for a walk-off strike.

Three dangerous hitters — Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli, and Cruz — were due up. Beltre, despite his three-homer game last week, was actually the weakest threat. Beltre was perhaps even more limited by injury than Martinez or Young, having gone hitless in seven at-bats since sustaining a left knee contusion in Game 4. But Leyland walked him anyway, gambling that Valverde would be able to induce a double-play ball from Napoli and escape the inning.

“You’re just trying to set up a double play,” Leyland said. “I didn’t want Beltre and Napoli both to hit against him.”

It was the wrong move for a variety of reasons: Beltre hasn’t shown that he can hit on the bum leg … Napoli hit a home run against Valverde in his lone official at-bat against him in regular-season play … Napoli delivered in similar clutch spots earlier in this postseason … And Valverde, who thrives amid chaos, seemed to get the Comerica Park crowd behind him with the Young strikeout. The intentional walk sucked the life right out of the stadium.

So, as you might imagine, Napoli came through. He punched the game-winning single into center field. Cruz, apparently unsatisfied with his heroics to that point, followed with a three-run homer — barely more than 48 hours after his walk-off grand slam in Game 2.

Would the inning have been different if Leyland hadn’t walked Beltre? We’ll never know. But Beltre’s performance after the injury suggests Valverde had an excellent chance to get him out. And then Napoli would have faced much more pressure, with the game tied and two away.

If there is to be any hand-wringing about Leyland in Michigan this morning, it should be about that decision and that decision alone. Leyland can’t be blamed for Jackson being thrown out (by Napoli, of course) on a steal attempt, which ultimately denied Cabrera an at-bat in the 10th inning. Leyland didn’t order Jackson to steal in that instance; Jackson, the Tigers’ lone base-stealing threat, has had the green light for most of the season.

Ryan Raburn was at the plate with Cabrera on deck and one out. Jackson said his goal was to get into scoring position by the time Cabrera was standing in the batter’s box. Jackson knew how long it generally took Texas reliever Scott Feldman to deliver the ball home, and he calculated that he would have enough time to take second base.

“We’ve talked about the pitchers and their times,” Jackson explained afterward. “Brookie (first base coach Tom Brookens) said, ‘If you get a jump, be aggressive. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake.’

“I feel like I got a good jump. He made a good throw. I was out.”

In that respect, Jackson’s steal attempt was similar to Cabrera taking off from third base on Young’s fly ball to left: They were bold moves that would have turned the game in Detroit’s favor, were it not for a perfectly executed defensive play. And today, that is the difference between Leyland being celebrated or vilified. October is cruel like that.

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