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 Special blend of talent, chemistry buoys Tigers

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PostSubject: Special blend of talent, chemistry buoys Tigers   Sat Sep 24, 2011 2:36 am

Special blend of talent, chemistry buoys Tigers
Dombrowski's additions, Leyland's guidance keys to success

By Hal Bodley | Columnist | 09/22/11 6:10 PM ET

Tigers manager Jim Leyland has a daily ritual of checking in with good buddy Don Zimmer, the Rays' legendary senior baseball adviser.

"We talk every day -- about baseball and everything else," Leyland said. "Most of the time, we're just giving each other hard times."

If, at any time, either one needs baseball advice, the other is very ready to expound on it.

When the Tigers were in the midst of their 12-game winning streak earlier this month, Leyland kept telling his friend how rewarding it is to see a team come together late in the season.

That blitz of American League Central contenders propelled the Tigers to their first division title since 1987 and their first trip to the postseason since '06, when they were the AL Wild Card winners.

So what have the two baseball graybeards been talking about lately?

"This might sound corny, but I talk all the time about how hard it is to win a baseball game," Leyland said. "Right now, Atlanta and Boston are going through that. People don't appreciate how hard it is to just win a game up here."

That's hard to believe when you take a look at the ease with which Detroit tore through the AL Central opposition.

When the Tigers came to St. Petersburg on Aug. 22 to play the Rays, they'd just swept the second-place Indians over three games to open a 5 1/2-game lead in the division.

That afternoon during lunch, Leyland told Zimmer that even with a big lead, he felt the division race would go down to the wire and be decided when the Tigers and Indians played the final three games of the season in Detroit.

"I really thought that," Leyland said. "In a way, that's true, because we're still playing for home-field advantage. That extra game at home is so important."

The Tigers, who play the Orioles in a four-game series before starting that final set on Monday, are neck-and-neck with the Rangers for the second-best record in the AL. If they end with the same mark, Detroit gets the advantage by virtue of taking the season series from Texas.

If that happens, the Tigers would play the AL Wild Card in the Division Series. If not, they'd have to go to New York to meet the Yankees.

Leyland, 66, has produced winners at just about every stop during his long managerial career -- a 1997 World Series title with the Marlins, three division championships with the Pirates, as well a postseason berth with the 2006 Tigers, who lost the World Series to the Cardinals. He's in his sixth season with Detroit.

It takes a special blend of talent and clubhouse chemistry to win a championship.

"I don't think many people picked us to win the division," said president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, who was the Marlins' GM in 1997 when Leyland guided them to a World Series title. "At the All-Star Game break, most people were picking the Indians or White Sox."

Dombrowski refuses to sit on his hands when it comes to tweaking a team for the stretch run. Most of his moves usually turn out well, but some haven't.

This year, he did more than roll the dice.

In July, Dombroswki obtained veteran infielder Wilson Betemit from Kansas City for a pair of prospects and pitcher Doug Fister in a six-player trade with Seattle.

On Aug. 15, the GM worked out a three-player deal with Minnesota for outfielder Delmon Young. The year before, at the Trade Deadline, Dombroski got Jhonny Peralta from Cleveland.

And don't forget the Nov. 29 signing of free-agent slugger Victor Martinez.

Without those deals, it's unlikely the Tigers would be where they are today. Or, like Leyland insists, it would be hard to win games.

"It's really been a resilient team. We stepped it up at the right time," he said. "It looked like Chicago, Cleveland or us was going to step on the accelerator. Nobody knew who it was going to be, but this year, fortunately, it happened to be us.

"Next year, it might be Cleveland or Minnesota. To be honest with you, we did pretty good. A lot of people probably didn't think I'd be around managing next year. I think we were fortunate because, like I said, we met the challenge."

Of note, Leyland signed a contract for 2012 a few weeks ago.

"People weren't talking about us at all when we were seven games behind Cleveland," Leyland said. "We played the Indians and White Sox nine times within a two-week period and swept all nine games. That's unheard of, really. Last year, it was somebody else. This year, it was us."

Leyland calls the moves Dombrowski made "brilliant."

"Sometimes they work out, and sometimes they don't," the skipper said. "This year, Betemit has helped us a lot, Young has contributed greatly and Fister has been a godsend. We had a pretty good corps already, so we lucked out."

Betemit entered Thursday's action hitting .281 with four homers and 18 RBIs, Young has five homers and 22 RBIs, and Fister is 7-1 with a 2.02 ERA since joining the Tigers.

Leyland believes the one player who's pulled it all together is Martinez. He's hitting .326 with 11 homers and 98 RBIs.

"He has been an absolute huge addition for us -- a huge, huge addition," Leyland said. "He's been outstanding in the clubhouse and on the field. But, it's a little easier to do that when you're hitting .330 and knocking in 100 runs."

Justin Verlander, who could win both the AL MVP Award and the Cy Young Award, goes for his 25th victory on Saturday against the Orioles. He's anchored a rotation that has been better than most preseason forecasts.

"He's been absolutely unbelievable," Leyland said. "Not much more can be said."

The Tigers clinched the division title last Friday night and won't open the AL Division Series until Sept. 30, at the earliest. When Detroit went to the World Series in 2006, it swept Oakland in the AL Championship Series in four games. The Tigers then had to wait seven days before the World Series began on Oct. 21.

Leyland was angry about the lapse then, but he said this hiatus is entirely different.

"We didn't have anybody to compete against while we waited for the National League champion," Leyland said. "This year, we're staying sharp because we're trying to clinch home-field advantage. We're playing for a lot, and that'll keep us going."

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

“It takes pitching, hitting and defense. Any two can win. All three make you unbeatable.”    
–Joe Garagiola
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