DETROIT – Between the hours of 4 a.m. and 9 a.m., a cell phone ring, ding or chime means something is very wrong. The worst is an early-morning call, of course, though sometimes a text message can be sneaky-bad. News that can’t wait until 9 a.m. is usually not news to be savored.
The phones of the Detroit Tigers' position players started buzzing around 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. Most were still asleep, the grind of the American League Championship Series and another flaccid day of hitting leaving them weary. Torii Hunter peeled his eyes open and read a message from Mac – Lloyd McClendon, his hitting coach: "You're leading off tonight. You OK with that?" Sure, Hunter replied, even though he hadn't done so in 14 years. Once Hunter gave the go-ahead, the other texts pinged through, and Jim Leyland's plan to rouse his team from its doldrums was in motion.
Leyland does not like change. He is not a tinkerer. He writes a lineup, sticks with it and rides it. This can be to his detriment. It is also why his players love him. They know what they're getting. So this – an on-the-fly overhaul that dropped Austin Jackson from the leadoff spot to the No. 8 hole and moved seven players up a spot – was Leyland's not-so-subtle way of saying even an old mule can grow tired of something, and he damn sure wasn't going to let the Tigers' season end on account of his inaction.
He didn't gloat after the Tigers rode the new-look batting order to a 7-3 victory over the Boston Red Sox in Game 4 of the ALCS, knotting the series and ensuring a return this weekend to Fenway Park. Leyland, in fact, dismissed causation, correlation or any sort of relationship between the runs – which in the first three games had come in trickles and drips – and his fiddling: "I don't know that it had anything to do with it. I doubt it very much."
Except there was Jackson, sitting atop the dais, in front of a microphone and a few Gatorade bottles in case he got parched from talking about his big night. And he was saying, yes, it did have something to do with it, and anybody who doubted that ought to take a leap inside his head to validate as much. Maybe this was confirmation bias, and maybe it was Boston starter Jake Peavy's willingness to blend erratic command with hittable stuff down the middle, and maybe it was nothing more than a good major league player, which Jackson surely is, being a good major league player.
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The playoffs are different, though, and when bad results meet vulnerable psyche and the inherent nature of the postseason being a small sample size, something like a player's mentality not only matters, it wins and loses games. Since we don't have the tools to measure it, then, we must rely on what a player tells us he believes, or at least lend it some credence. And Austin Jackson, who went 2 for 2 with a pair of walks from the No. 8 hole after hitting leadoff in all of his starts this season, believes Leyland did him a favor.
"Me moving down – it helped with just making me relax and be patient and just have fun, really," Jackson said. "Not pressing so much up there. And, like I said, I think that definitely helps."
All of this was for Jackson. He entered the game 3 for 33 with 18 strikeouts this postseason, and the Tigers grimaced not just at those numbers but the misery of his at-bats. Jackson wasn't the only problem – Prince Fielder is now hitting .200/.269/.247 in two postseasons as a Tiger and took an 0 for 4 on Wednesday while the rest of the lineup broke out – but it's far easier to drop a 26-year-old making $3.5 million than a cleanup man hitting with a $214 million deal.
"I didn't want to have something drastic," Leyland said. "I didn't want something to be comical."
Miguel Cabrera hit second, which he hadn't done since June 28, 2004, when he was 21. And Jackson got A-Rod'd, sent down to No. 8, though it beat getting benched, which was a possibility. Leyland said he lounged on his couch Tuesday night, watching Game 4 of the Cardinals-Dodgers series, and considered his options. He woke up early Wednesday, consulted with McClendon and other coaches, and gave McClendon the orders to inform the players of the changes.
When the official lineup was posted on the door at Comerica Park, players lined up to get a peek, like when the roles for the school play are assigned. This was new territory. As much as Leyland tried to downplay the lineup change, he wouldn't have done it if he thought things were going well. And though his sentiment is correct – shifting lineup order, in theory, has a negligible effect on how an offense performs – the Tigers put up a five-spot in the second inning thanks to Peavy's wildness and some timely hitting, following up with two more runs in the fourth inning and gave Leyland an order he plans on using again in Game 5 on Thursday at 8:07 p.m. ET.
"If guys think it works," Tigers starter Justin Verlander said, "it works."
Well, it worked, at least, and this time of year there is no sense in trying to rationalize the why or how behind it. "Maybe," Leyland said, "sometimes just a jolt like that gets you back into sync a little bit." It contradicted what he said earlier, which might've been more of a volley to deflect credit from him and give it to his players, a classic Leyland technique.
He didn't want to be known as Leyland the Genius, just as he didn't want to be Leyland the Fool after David Ortiz's grand slam stole Game 2 away from the Tigers. More than anyone, Leyland tries to subscribe to the theory that this game is about the players. And it is. Almost everything is.
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Except there are choices, hard choices, that a manager must make, and Leyland's greatest quality is creating an environment in which players not only respect those choices but believe in them. He trusted that they would trust him, and in the middle of the most important games of the year, that took courage.
"Leyland has a meaning behind everything," Hunter said. "Fifty-one years in this game, I'm pretty sure he's picked up some wisdom along the way. When he's doing something, he has a meaning behind it. You really can't question a guy like that."
You can, actually, and plenty do. Were the score reversed and the Red Sox leading the series 3-1, the story would've looked different – that not even a panicky Jim Leyland could save the Tigers from their own flaws. Had Austin Jackson taken a golden sombrero, it would've been more of the same – first, eighth, the guy is Ishtar in a baseball uniform.
For whatever reason, this worked, and if the Tigers ride this batting order to the World Series, it will be another notch in the column of Leyland the Genius. Already some were assigning it a mythical quality, asking what Leyland planned on doing with the lineup card.
"I'll throw it away," he said, "unless I can sell it to some bar on the way home."
It probably warrants framing, because the lineup card represents history, to be explained by an inscription above it: The first time a text between 4 a.m. and 9 a.m. led to anything good.
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- Jim Leyland
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- Torii Hunter
- Austin Jackson