© 2006 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
DETROIT -- Tigers left-hander Nate Robertson received a phone call last winter, and he was a bit surprised to learn who was on the other end of the line.
Newly hired Tigers manager Jim Leyland had called Robertson to talk with him about the upcoming season and try to get to know the man who would be one of his five starters.
"It's one of the most special memories that I have," Robertson said of the call. "You just knew from that phone call and the letter he sent all of us players that this would be something different from the past."
The contact with his players was just the first sign that Leyland possessed a magic touch.
The veteran manager returned from a hiatus to take over a Tigers team that many had written off as a non-contender. With many questioning if he was indeed ready to return, Leyland proved that he could not only run a team, but take this Tigers ballclub to its first World Series appearance in 22 years.
For Leyland's players, there's no doubt that much of the club's success has to do with Leyland himself.
"It's just his whole aura," left fielder Craig Monroe said. "He understands a lot more than we will ever give him credit for. He works magic for me, because he gives you so much confidence and puts you in situations where you can succeed -- where you really feel like you are going to succeed."
And now, come playoff time, when it's time to make decisions in tough situations, it seems that Leyland can do no wrong. Over the club's four-game sweep during the American League Championship Series, Leyland had plenty of tough calls, and all worked out in favor of the skipper.
To see Leyland's impact, one has to look only at the stat sheet.
In four ALCS games, Leyland used three different designated hitters -- Marcus Thames, Alexis Gomez and Omar Infante -- and they reached base in seven of their 16 plate appearances. And when Leyland decided to pinch-hit Gomez for Infante in the eighth inning of Friday's game, things again played out perfectly, as Gomez came up with a base hit to center field.
It's an uncanny ability to figure out the way that his players are feeling and put them in the right situations that has Leyland looking like a mastermind, even if much of it has to do with plenty of work behind the scenes.
"He studies a lot," Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson said of Leyland. "He has a lot of information and he knows how matchups work well. I'll sit there and ask guys, 'Why is so-and-so in against so-and-so,' and they'll tell me why he chose that player. He knows all the stats better than anybody else. He just puts them out there, and it ends up working."
Those types of decisions weren't just limited to the second round of the playoffs, either. Leyland has been choosing to do things that most questioned throughout the entire year, including one during a critical Game 2 of the Division Series against the Yankees that the Tigers knew they had to win.
"In Yankee Stadium, he pulled me out with a 1-1 count, and Jamie Walker came in and got a double play," starter Justin Verlander said. "You can't doubt the guy with the decisions he's made all year long."
Part of the reason it seems that things work for Leyland is the relationship that he has with his players.
This is a Tigers squad that has come off seasons of disappointing efforts, but with Leyland at the helm, there has been a renewed confidence level in the team that was lacking before. The level of respect for the 61-year-old manager is so high that it's almost as if he can do no wrong in the eyes of his players.
"He continuously shocks you, makes you laugh and allows you to be so relaxed and trust your ability and have that inner swagger that you have to have inside," Monroe said. "There are 25 guys in this clubhouse, and he has helped all of us believe that we can succeed."
"He just knows how to push people's buttons," first baseman Sean Casey added. "He knows how to take 25 guys from different countries, different beliefs, and make them one team. He knows how to pull a team together."
Leyland's players may always trust in his decisions, but there have been plenty of questions aimed at him from the outside during this postseason. From calling on Robertson, the team's usual No. 4 starter, in Game 1 of the first two playoff series to going with Kenny Rogers in Friday's start at home rather than using him in Game 2 at Oakland, where he had a 23-1 record since 1995, Leyland has made calls that have often seemed far from popular opinion.
The Tigers skipper hasn't been afraid to shake up his lineup, either, moving Monroe into the No. 2 spot in Friday's order after he had success in the No. 7 spot for the first two games of the series. In his postseason debut, Gomez started at DH in Game 2, and the 27-year-old went 2-for-3 with only the second Major League home run of his career. Leyland even called on lesser-used relievers in Jason Grilli and Wilfredo Ledezma to keep Saturday's game tied at 3 until Magglio Ordonez delivered a walk-off homer in the ninth inning.
It's just part of Leyland's thinking of using all of his players in a mix that doesn't seem to make much sense to anyone but him.
"He's good at playing everyone and keeping everyone fresh," third baseman Brandon Inge said of Leyland. "I don't know if he has a good sense of what's going on or if he's just lucky. When you have the amount of respect that most of these guys have for him, you're going to play really hard, and you can expect that from everyone in the lineup."
So what does the skipper credit as the secret to the strong decision-making?
"I think it's a matter [of having] confidence in all your players, and there's also a little luck that goes along with it, to be honest with you," Leyland said after Friday's Game 3 win. "If the players execute, it's a good lineup. If they don't, you should have picked somebody else, I guess."
Call it luck or magic, but not many are questioning Leyland's picks right now -- certainly not the players who have put all of their trust in the man who has helped them reach this point.
"He's been the heart and soul of this team all year long," Robertson said of Leyland. "He's helped us keep things in perspective out there and focus on what we had to get done. It was his help that got us not only to compete, but to finish up and get us here."
And while it means much for the entire team to reach this point, there is an extra-special feeling to get the man to whom they all devote so much respect to the grandest of all stages in baseball.
"We know it's special for us, but we know it's special for him, and we're glad to be the ones to help get him here," Casey said. "But he'll tell you until we get the World Series title, until we get the job done, it's not over."
So for at least four more games, it seems that Leyland will have to keep using that magic touch.