Leyland has surging Tigers motoring along

ON BASEBALL

October 13, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY

Detroit -- They wouldn't bite.

Not at all.

The Detroit Tigers wouldn't say they are a team of destiny, that they have punched their tickets to the World Series after little-known outfielder Alexis Gomez nearly matched his regular season's RBI output with four runs driven in Wednesday night.

Anyone who has watched baseball knows how the postseason works. A team gets hot. All facets of the club click. It gets clutch contributions from players that not even die-hard fans can pick out of a lineup.

And, within a couple of weeks, that team's players are taking champagne showers and picking ticker tape out of their hair.

These Tigers are up 2-0 on the Oakland Athletics in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series and, starting tonight, they get three consecutive games at home. Sure, they could lose four of their next five. Stranger things have happened.

But it's unlikely. Because the Tigers have momentum. Because they have good pitching and timely hitting. And because they probably have baseball's best manager.

Don't run down that list for them, though. Their crusty, grizzled manager, Jim Leyland, won't let them think that way.

"We have five more games to go," Tigers right fielder Magglio Ordonez said. "We need to have the same approach every day, be focused, concentrate, attack and try to win. We've been focused in the last two games. Like I say and like Leyland says, it's another tough one every day."

Notice Ordonez quotes Leyland. That's because he is the club's resident Confucius - a modern-day philosopher with nicotine-stained hands and a baseball cap.

"We end up winning games and he looks like a genius," Tigers closer Todd Jones said of Leyland. "As well he should."

All season, Leyland has been speaking upstream. When his upstart squad was posting victories at a ridiculous clip, he cautioned that it couldn't keep up the pace.

And when the Tigers struggled in September, were swept by the lowly Royals and had to settle for a wild-card berth, Leyland scoffed at the notion that he had a JV club facing the New York Yankees' varsity.

He was right, of course. The Tigers dispatched the Bronx Bombers and are halfway toward doing the same to the A's.

The viewing public is amazed. But Leyland's Tigers aren't. They expect to be here. They expect to be in charge. Primarily because Leyland laid out a plan and they have followed it to the letter.

Simple as that, the Tigers say.

"We're back to staying focused and being prepared. I know Jim has been talking about it all season long, and it started in spring training," left fielder Craig Monroe said. "He told us, `You've got to be prepared, you've got to be focused and play hard for nine innings.' That's what we are doing, and we are going to stick to it. That's what we've been doing all year long, and it's taken us a long way."

Again, what Leyland preached is not anything new, anything complex. What he said is basically what every manager says every spring. It's what Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo told his players in February in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The difference is the experience that comes with Leyland's words. He has won in Pittsburgh and Florida. He saw no reason why he wasn't going to win in Detroit, though the rest of us so-called experts had plenty of ready-made excuses for him.

You see, the Tigers were in a tough division. Their pitching was fairly inexperienced, and they were counting on recycled soft tosser Kenny Rogers to anchor the staff. They had a young kid leading off. They had an ancient closer. They didn't have much proven power. And who knew if star catcher Ivan Rodriguez or Ordonez could make it through a full season?

Yet, we didn't know that the Tigers would gladly gulp down a glass full of "one game at a time" cliches that Leyland was serving.

"Jim has done such a great job of almost brainwashing our calm," Jones said, "to where ... each game is so separate. It just gets to the point where he separates everything and gets everything out of what we need to do and we just go out there and make pitches and have good at-bats."

They've done it since May. Two more wins and they, shockingly, are your American League champions. It seems like destiny, fate.

That's our little secret, however.

Because the Tigers swear they are preparing for five more ALCS battles against the A's - one game at a time, of course.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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