Detroit — Jim Leyland couldn’t wait to get the ballpark Wednesday.
The Tigers’ manager was in a feisty mood, and he had something for his critics. Something for the Boston Red Sox, too. Most of all, he felt as if he had something that might “wake up” his team’s slumbering lumber.
He had a new lineup, born of necessity after another shutout loss and bound to stir debate with a fanbase on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“Just a little something to, you know, churn up the butter a little bit,” he said.
Well, something worked. And whatever it was, it was a welcome change for the anxious crowd of 42,765 at Comerica Park on Wednesday night. The Tigers churned out a handful of runs in the second inning en route to a 7-3 victory in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.
That tied the best-of-seven series at two games apiece, ensuring a return to Fenway Park this weekend and, for the moment, lifting some of the pressure that was starting to suffocate Leyland’s team.
New look, new life, new series. All with the stroke of a pen on a notepad?
“This has nothing to do with Jim Leyland,” the manager insisted afterward. “This is about the players.”
Maybe so, but some of those players were doing next to nothing in this series, and Leyland knew he needed to do something with his lineup to try to change that. So after saying he’d “sleep on it” Tuesday night following an excruciating 1-0 loss in Game 3, he had Lloyd McClendon, his hitting coach, spread the news to the players Wednesday morning, “just so they weren’t shocked when they came to the ballpark and saw a different lineup card.”
The biggest difference? Leyland finally dropped a slump-ridden Austin Jackson from the leadoff spot to eighth in the order. He moved everyone else up a notch, starting with Hunter, his new 38-year-old leadoff hitter, and followed by the reigning MVP, Miguel Cabrera, in the No. 2 slot.
Never mind that Cabrera hadn’t batted second since 2004 when he was with the Florida Marlins. Or that Hunter hadn’t batted leadoff since the last millennium. (At 23, I didn’t have car insurance then,” Hunter joked. “It was still in my mom’s name.”) This lineup made sense to the sabermetric crowd — advanced stats say Cabrera should’ve been hitting in the No. 2 hole all along — and it made sense to Leyland, albeit for different reasons.
“I mean, we scored one run and no runs in two of the games,” he said of the Tigers’ swing-and-miss start against the Red Sox. “It certainly can’t hurt. We’re going to take a shot. If nothing else, when guys look at the lineup card … maybe it wakes you up a little bit.”
It certainly did Jackson, who was in bed when the text message from McClendon woke him. (“I was just happy that I was still in there,” he said.) And by the time the rest of the jumbled lineup had arrived at the ballpark, there was a noticeable jump in their step.
“He was trying to change the mindset of all the players in the lineup. It was a lot of fun. And I think it kind of settled us down a little bit. And we went out and did what we had to do.
“It changes the mindset of all the players when you switch up the lineup like that,” Hunter said. “Leyland knows what he’s doing, man. Fifty-one years in baseball, you should pick up a lot of knowledge along the way. He knows what he’s doing.”
And the players knew what they had to do.
They might’ve hit the snooze button in the first inning, going down quickly in order on a cool, breezy night downtown. But then Red Sox starter Jake Peavy started feeling generous and the Tigers started generating some real-life offense in support of Doug Fister, the forgotten fourth wheel in their Rolls Royce rotation.
The Tigers had drawn just one walk off Boston’s starters in the first three games of this series. Peavy handed out three free passes in the second inning Wednesday as a patient approach at the plate proved to be just the right medicine.
After a leadoff single by Victor Martinez, the next two batters – Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila — walked to load the bases. Omar Infante followed with a shallow fly to center for the first out of the inning.
Then it was Jackson’s turn. His manager kept him the lineup for his glove in centerfield, as well as a brief history of success (9-for-28 in his career) against Peavy. But also because there really weren’t any better options on his bench — “You’ve got to be creative with what we’ve got,” Leyland said — despite Jackson’s awful showing thus far in the playoffs.
He was a dismal 3-for-33 with 18 strikeouts in his first eight playoff games, and the hope, Leyland said, was that a demotion might at least “relax him a little bit.”
Peavy did his best to make him feel comfortable right off the bat, walking Jackson on four pitches and forcing in a run, ending the Tigers’ 13-inning scoreless streak. A sharp grounder from Jose Iglesias — acquired from Boston in the three-team trade that sent Peavy to Boston in July — made it 2-0. And after two more hits — Hunter’s double and Cabrera’s single — the Tigers had batted around in the inning.
That gave Fister all the help he’d need — he exited after allowing one run in six innings — and gave the Tigers something to build on, surely. Every hitter but Prince Fielder reached base Wednesday night, led by Jackson, of all people. He finished with two hits and a pair of walks in four at-bats, nearly doubling his playoff total in both categories.
“I’ve been scuffling this postseason — it’s not a secret,” he said, adding later. “But it felt good to go out there and not put so much pressure on myself.”
The pressure’s hardly off this team now, with home-field advantage back in the Red Sox corner and precious little separating these two teams.
But just like last week, when they found themselves staring at a 2-1 series deficit against Oakland in the ALDS, the Tigers responded Wednesday night. Against Oakland, they exploded for eight runs in Game 4, then closed it out with a series-clinching win on the road.
Wednesday, they might’ve taken a similar turn.
A new lineup, order restored?
As Hunter said with a veteran smile, “We know baseball. Things can change.”
That was idea, all right.