10/16/2013 11:55 P.M. ET
Leyland pushes the right buttons in Game 4
Skipper deflects credit to players after Tigers roar with new lineup
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
DETROIT -- You have to love a manager who decides to give the critics an earful even before they've spoken.
"You can say I'm nuts, you can say I'm dumb, you can say whatever you want," Tigers skipper Jim Leyland said Wednesday afternoon.
Is there an appropriate followup question for that?
"It does give you something to write about," he said. "So here it is, have a good time with it."
That sounded like a dare, didn't it? He said all of this before his Tigers beat the Red Sox, 7-3, in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, which is now tied 2-2.
So this is how Leyland's afternoon began. He walked briskly into the interview room at Comerica Park 4 1/2 hours before first pitch and announced he'd made a "huge change" to his lineup.
After watching the Tigers score a total six runs while falling behind two games to one in the ALCS, he shook things up.
He decided on the switch at his home Tuesday night after a 1-0 loss to the Red Sox in Game 3 while watching the Cardinals and Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.
"I'm not afraid to try something," he added.
Leyland did more than that. If he'd wanted to try something, he would have benched slumping center fielder and leadoff hitter Austin Jackson.
Leyland decided that switching a couple of names might not have the impact he wanted. He did what a lot of managers never would have. He changed the whole thing.
"I didn't want something to be comical," he said. "I just felt like I thought the biggest thing was to move Jackson out of the leadoff spot and work around that however I felt would be the best way to do it. This is what I came up with."
He dropped Jackson, hitting .091 in the postseason, from first to eighth and moved everyone else up. That change meant that his best offensive player, third baseman Miguel Cabrera, was bumped from third to second in the order.
Cabrera hadn't hit second since his second year in the Majors in 2004, and guys like him, guys who've had so much success in one spot, sometimes get skittish about a move.
Leyland moved first baseman Prince Fielder, too, from fourth to third. Again, a big change. Fielder had batted fourth for 320 of his 324 regular-season starts for the Tigers.
If this sounds like no big deal, you're wrong. Baseball players are creatures of habit, and they take ownership of their places in the lineup. They understand the role and the responsibilities that come with those spots, and when they're shifted, they see it as a dramatic change in job description.
For instance, right fielder Torii Hunter was bumped from second to first, where he hadn't batted since 2000. He said leading off the bottom of the first inning made him feel like "a sacrificial lamb." He meant that one of the duties of a leadoff hitter is to look at some pitches and give the other hitters on the team a chance to check out what the guy is throwing.
On the other hand, he understands his manager.
"Leyland, anything he does, he has a meaning behind it," Hunter said.
Anyway, Leyland showed again why he has been one of the most successful and respected managers of his generation. Few managers have done a better job of reading the mood of his team and communicating with his players.
Some men were born to lead, and that's what Leyland brings to the table. After the Tigers scored one, five and zero runs in the series' first three games, Leyland wanted his players to come to work and see a lineup card that caught their attention.
He'd had one of his coaches, Lloyd McClendon, text the players to inform them of the change, but there was still that moment when they saw it for the first time.
"I don't know if they went, 'Whoa,'" he said. "And maybe sometimes just a jolt like that gets you back in sync a little bit."
Players say that one of the keys to succeeding in the postseason is to keep routines and schedules and mindsets as normal as possible. Leyland did the opposite. He let them know that Game 4 of the ALCS is not just another game.
His Tigers were in danger of falling into a 3-1 hole in the best-of-seven series. By making an eye-opening change, he may have gotten everyone's attention, which may have been as important as the specific changes.
Regardless, it worked. The Tigers scored five runs in the second inning on their way to tying the series. Hunter drove in three runs from the leadoff spot, and Cabrera had two hits and two RBIs. And best of all, Jackson, mired in that terrible slump, was on base four times with two walks and two singles. He also drove in two runs.
Afterward, Leyland did what the great ones almost always do. He deflected credit, pointing out it was the players who'd done the heavy lifting.
That's another thing about baseball's best managers. When things are going bad, they accept the blame. When things are good, they want it to be about the players, and, yes, there's a method to the madness.
"This has nothing to do with Jim Leyland; this is about the players," Leyland said. "They executed, they came out, they played well. And this is playoff baseball, and we'll see what happens. It's tied, 2-2. We're happy with that. We know we're going back to Boston for sure, either one up or one down. Really not a lot to say. We'll come out tomorrow and get after it again."
All that's true. Still, this victory began with the manager, the guy who has filled out 3,499 lineup cards in the regular season and has set an incredibly high standard for all his peers.
Oh, he said he would use the same lineup again in Game 5, airing at 8 ET Thursday night on FOX.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.