October 28, 2020

Leyland Wins Chess Match With Girardi; Tigers To ALCS

The tension and drama of Baseball has made a sort of comeback into our consciousness over the past couple of weeks. It started during the regular season’s final weeks and culminated in that spectacular final day of the season that finally locked in all of the playoff participants. The Division Series has continued that feeling as Baseball fans are being treated to 19 of a possible 20 first round games. The Yankees and Tigers began their season in the ran, which forced some adjustments, but that all culminated into very slow build up that all led to a tension filled game five.

Elimination games have inherent drama. It goes against everything that the regular season stands for. 162 games allows for tomorrow’s. There’s always something to worry about for the next game. Relievers have to be managed. But, elimination games change all of that. Starting pitchers can throw in relief, leaving a manager with options and decisions he never had during the season. That all leads to a sort of tension that most baseball games don’t have. Every pitch is important. Every decision means a possible end. Does a Manager change his normal plan or does he do whatever it takes? Joe Girardi and Jim Leyland certainly managed differently. Girardi was the aggressor, but Leyland would make subtle decisions that helped influence the game. As much as the Baseball Manager is often devalued, game five would very much be the chess match between Girardi and Leyland. That chess match would lead to a rare type of baseball game that held us captive for every single pitch.

The first move in the chess match came before the game as Jim Leyland made the decision to put Don Kelly in the lineup and bat him second. Kelly, who is the 25th man on the roster, hit .245/.291/.381 in 257 at bats. He is the epitome of a bench player who is used more for defense and speed. To bat second in an elimination is a result of a real gut decision by a veteran Manager. It paid off right away with Kelly hitting a homerun. ¬†”Sometimes things just work out for you. He’s been swinging the bat well. To have that memory for that kid is really special. He’ll have that for the rest of his life,” said Jim Leyland.

The Tigers began as well as they could’ve hoped for with back to back homeruns from Don Kelly and Delmon Young on back to back pitches in the top of the first inning. Nova would toss a scoreless second, but he would continue to get hit hard. He didn’t come back out for the third inning. At the time, it seemed mysterious as to why Girardi would remove Nova so quickly. It would be announced later that Nova had a tight right forearm. “His forearm tightened up a bit and we didn’t like the way the ball was coming out of his hands. I had to make a change. Our bullpen did a tremendous job,” said Girardi. Even if he wasn’t hurt, it is difficult to criticize Girardi.

It is game five. Nova was getting hit. Joe Girardi could not afford to be patient with any of his pitchers. Perhaps he would be had C.C. Sabathia been the starter, but in an elimination game setup with a rookie pitcher on the mound, patience can lead to a four or five run deficit quite quickly. With the lack of a dominant starter, Girardi had to play his one strength that he held over Jim Leyland’s club. Girardi has dominant late inning relievers who are rested. Mariano Rivera and David Robertson could go multiple innings. It was Girardi’s job to get to the 6th inning with the game close. In order to do that, he had to manage the middle innings as if they were late inning, match up situations. If he could get his bullpen to his late innings guys, the Yankees had a chance.

When Nova didn’t return Girardi would send Phil Hughes and Boone Logan to get through the third and fourth innings. They would combine for 2 innings, allowing 3 hits, and 3 strikeouts. Then, Girardi called on Sabathia. The Yankees’ ace gave up a run in the fifth, but limited the damage to keep the Yankees within three. Robinson Cano would bring the Yankees back to within two runs with a solo homerun in the fifth inning.

Sabathia started the sixth, but was removed after he allowed a walk to Jhonny Peralta. Rafael Soriano pitched 1.2 dominant innings. Girardi finally got to his lone real strength heading into the game. He finally was able to get to his best two relievers.

Meanwhile, Jim Leyland had his own chess match to play. Doug Fister flirted with some trouble, but was able to keep Yankees hitters off balance enough to keep the Yankees off the scoreboard until Cano’s homerun. Because Leyland had Verlander throw a side session, his ace wasn’t available. With a weak bullpen, Leyland didn’t have the options Girardi did. Doug Fister helped make Leyland’s job easier by holding the Yankees to 1 run, 5 hits, 2 walks, and 5 strikeouts during his 5 innings of work. If it were the regular season, Fister would’ve came out for the fifth as he threw just 92 pitches. But, the Yankees were starting to get to him and as Game one showed, once Fister loses his command, he becomes very hittable. Leyland had his own weapon in Max Scherzer, who had dominated the Yankees in game two as well as during the regular season.

Scherzer would dominate in a scoreless sixth, but he would allow an infield single to Derek Jeter after striking out Brett Gardner to leadoff the seventh. Leyland would call on Joaquin Benoit to face Curtis Granderson. Granderson would single. Cano would get on with an infield single. It would be bases loaded for Alex Rodriguez.

It always seems to come down to Rodriguez, doesn’t it? No matter the moment, Alex Rodriguez seems to always be at the center of it. Benoit would strike him out, making Rodriguez’s 2009 post season seem like a distant memory.

Benoit would walk Mark Teixeira, but would get Nick Swisher with a strikeout. The chess match headed to the eighth with the Tigers clinging to a 3-2 lead. The Yankees had chances, but were 2 for 9, leaving 10 men on base with runners in scoring position through seven innings.

Girardi’s chess match continued as planned with David Robertson pitching a scoreless eighth. Although the offense couldn’t get going, Joe Girardi successfully navigated his team to the last two innings with a clear pitching advantage. Robertson did his part. It was now Leyland’s turn to make his move. Instead, he chose a non-move. He left Joaquin Benoit in to face Jorge Posada who was a lifetime .400 hitter against the Tigers’ right hander. Benoit got Posada on a check swing grounder. He struck out Russell Martin before giving up a single to Brett Gardner. Derek Jeter would hit a flyball to the warning track to end the inning. “What a tremendous, gutty performance. He’s been like that all year. A great signing by Dave Dombrowski,” stated Leyland.¬†Leyland got his team to the ninth inning with a lead and to his closer who hasn’t blown a save all season.

Mariano Rivera would need just five pitches to get through the top of the ninth inning. Valverde didn’t need much more. For a game that was tension filled for the first eight innings, the ninth inning as as anti-climatic as it could get. Valverde kept his perfect save streak with a perfect ninth inning, punctuated by an Alex Rodriguez strikeout to end the game.

Some may look at this as an upset, but that would be ignoring just how evenly matched the two teams were. The Tigers will now travel to Texas to face a hot Rangers team. Like the ALDS, the Tigers will have the best player on the field in Miguel Cabrera and the best pitcher in the series in Justin Verlander. Suddenly, Jim Leyland’s insistence that Verlander not be used in game five looms large as he will be fresh for game one or two, depending on how Leyland wants to line him up.

But, that’s tomorrow’s story. The Tigers won a series that featured four close games. The American League division series really did feature the League’s four best teams. The Rangers were able to get through the Rays quickly. The Yankees and Tigers played compelling baseball. There wasn’t too much in the way of controversy and it featured well played baseball. It was a perfect series. “Bottom line is we lost two, one run games to them. We played our hearts out,” said Girardi. For Girardi, it will go down as a loss and a disappointment. A World Series winning Manager will never be happy with a playoff loss. But, he managed this single game better than any other game in his career. He culled 7 innings of relief out of his bullpen to give his team a chance. His team just couldn’t hit tonight.

Jim Leyland has been around the game for quite some time. He’s been on the losing end of heart breaking losses and has experienced the euphoria of being a World Series champion. But, this series may be his signature moment. He made some excellent choices, didn’t overly depend on Verlander, and navigated his way through game five by using Max Scherzer and his two best relievers. “The Yankees are so good that I’d be lying if it didn’t give me a little extra pride to get it done here. And, I mean that respectfully. This will be a game I remember for the rest of my life,” said Leyland.