Russell Martin, a good baseball player having a bad year, almost poisoned the Tigers earlier this week.
Martin, the New York Yankees catcher, is hitting below .200 for the season—well below his career mark (going into this year) of .272. But despite his failure to get a hit rate of over 80 percent, Martin shot the hearts of Tigers fans into their throats on Tuesday night.
It was the ninth inning, the Tigers clinging to a 6-4 lead, and closer Jose Valverde was having one of those ninth innings that all closers sometimes have—the kind where he leads the fans, like a demented pied piper, to the gates of Hell and back again.
Valverde was as wobbly as a punch-drunk prize fighter. And even the weak-hitting Martin wasn’t an antidote.
With runners on first and second and two outs, a run already in, Martin laced a Valverde fastball deep into the left-field corner. For sure, it was a double; the only question was: Would the hit score both runners and tie the game?
Raul Ibanez scored easily from second base. Chugging around second and heading for third at full speed was the recently acquired, future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki.
Would Ichiro round third and dare try to score the tying run?
He would have, without question, had it not been for one very well-timed defensive replacement.
Quintin Berry, so fleet of foot, had been sent to play left field in the eighth inning by manager Jim Leyland, bumping the competent but slightly slower Andy Dirks over to right field.
And it was because Berry, not Dirks, was the one who raced to field Martin’s double, that Ichiro was unable or unwilling to try for home plate.
Even the fact that Berry is left-handed, which meant he’d have to turn his body after scooping up the baseball before throwing it, didn’t sway Ichiro toward going for it.
Even though there were two outs, and baseball axioms say that making the final out of the game at home plate in a one-run contest is not without honor, Ichiro still wasn’t convinced to lower his head and try to score the tying run.
All because the sprinting Berry was upon Martin’s batted ball as if he was wearing a red cape and a big “S” on his chest—for Speed.
Ichiro stayed at third base. The score stayed 6-5. And that’s where both stayed after Valverde managed to strike out the next batter—Curtis Granderson, the kewpie doll center fielder for the Yankees, who still makes the women swoon in Detroit.
After the game, the dunderheads who call into the sports talk radio shows lit up the switchboard with venom.
The Tigers had won a big game over the vaunted Yankees—two in a row to open the four-game series—and better yet, they kept the pressure on the first-place Chicago White Sox.
You wouldn’t know it by the cranks with their cell phones.
The Tigers won, but it was all about Leyland—as usual.
A baseball season allows for Monday morning quarterbacking 162 times a year—and more if your team gets into the playoffs. It’s part of the fun—I get that.
But sometimes, those calling into the talk shows ought to press their phone’s mute button before opening their mouths. They’d save themselves some embarrassment.
The Tigers won Tuesday, and right away the callers to the postgame show on 97.1 The Ticket started laying into Leyland.
Why didn’t Leyland leave Octavio Dotel, who pitched a perfect eighth inning, in for the ninth inning? Why does he keep using Valverde at all, for that matter? The Tigers won despite Leyland! Why is Leyland even around to make these decisions to begin with?
And so on.
I listened to the drivel for about 30 minutes and not once did a caller chime in and say, “Thank goodness Leyland put Berry in the game! If not, Ichiro would have scored and maybe the Tigers would have lost!”
Heaven forbid someone give the skipper some credit.
It may have been Managing 101 to some, to insert the lightning-quick Berry into the game as a late-inning defensive replacement, but Leyland did it and it worked, no matter how elementary of a decision some may think it was—and upon further review, it wasn’t all that elementary.
Because, with someone like Dirks, who’s not a slow poke, already playing left field, some managers might have stayed with the status quo. They may have figured they had enough speed and range out there with a player of Dirks’ caliber. Berry might have been on the bench instead of chasing down Martin’s double.
Yet there was Quintin Berry, bless his jackrabbit soul, pouncing on Martin’s hit and doing it so fast that Ichiro, another non-slowpoke, was forced to remain at third base.
The decision to put Berry into the game kept the tying run 90 feet from home plate. It was instinctive, thinking-ahead managing at its best.
But again, not if you listened to the blowhards talking into their cell phones after the game.
Leyland is fired everyday in Detroit. The fans have been firing him for years. He was fired even last year, when the Tigers ran away with their division with a second-half blitzkrieg that folks (like me) had been bitching hadn’t occurred in the Leyland Era prior to 2011.
Few of the wannabe Leyland executioners have any replacements in mind, but that’s another column for another day.
To the manager’s credit, Leyland not only doesn’t mind the monotonous second-guessing, he actually seems to like it.
Speaking to Mike Stone on The Ticket Thursday morning, Leyland said, “We’re in a pennant race. Everyone’s into it. Everyone’s a manager. I think that’s great, I really do. I have no problem with that whatsoever.”
Leyland knows, too, that the second-guessing is only going to get worse and more pervasive—and, in a lot of cases, more asinine, as the race heats up down the stretch.
Another longtime baseball manager once summed up second-guessers thusly.
Leyland needed just one guess Tuesday night with Quintin Berry. It’s one reason why Leyland has 1,649 big league wins—and counting—as a manager. And not one of those 1,649 wins came with the crutch of a second guess.