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 Dombrowski's shrewd moves paying off

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PostSubject: Dombrowski's shrewd moves paying off   Fri Oct 07, 2011 8:04 pm

Dombrowski's shrewd moves paying off
Free-agent pickups V-Mart, Benoit, Fister, Young power Tigers
By Alden Gonzalez | Columnist
10/07/11 3:58 AM ET

NEW YORK -- It isn't very often so many moves work out so well.

"Believe me, I've struck out plenty of times in my career," a champagne-soaked Tigers president, CEO and general manager Dave Dombrowski said after his club advanced to the American League Championship Series with a 3-2 win in Game 5 of the AL Division Series vs. the Yankees on Thursday night.

Do that job long enough, that's bound to happen a lot. And it sure has to Dombrowski. There was the Jarrod Washburn and Aubrey Huff signings of 2009 that went awry, that Dontrelle Willis extension that set the club back a few years, the Omar Infante-for-Jacque Jones trade of '07 that worked out backward, and on and on.

But then there are those years when it all clicks.

This, more so than any other, is one of those years for Dombrowki, who has held all three titles since 2002, and manager Jim Leyland. Game 5 of this ALDS -- the one the Tigers approached with a calm and a poise that made you believe the odds weren't stacked so high against them, even though they were -- displayed that.

There was Don Kelly, surprisingly given the start over Wilson Betemit because Leyland wanted to ride Kelly's hot bat, getting the Tigers on the board with a first-inning homer off Ivan Nova.

There was Delmon Young, the talented-but-underachieving outfielder picked up for mere scraps from the Twins in August, going deep on the next pitch to give the Tigers back-to-back postseason homers for the first time.

There was Victor Martinez, the man who turned out to be the greatest signing of the offseason, calmly singling to center field with two outs in the fifth to give the Tigers what would be a necessary three-run lead.

There was Doug Fister, the unquestioned best pickup of the non-waiver Trade Deadline, turning in an all-grit, one-run, five-inning, 92-pitch effort for the win.

And there was Joaquin Benoit, the middle reliever signed to an oft-criticized three-year deal, escaping tough jam after tough jam to keep this lead intact.

As many will say, this game humbles you. It can put you on a pedestal one day, sink you to the bottom the next. Dombrowski and Leyland -- fused at the hip for the last five years in Detroit, together for World Series glory in South Florida in 1997 -- know that harsh reality very well.

And that makes them appreciate a year like this one; a year when everything just seems to be going so right.

"We have a good club, and we have good people in the organization," Dombrowski said. "We've had a lot of great moves by our scouts, recommendations. Of course the players rise to the occasion when they do the job, and Jim handles them well, so it's a collective effort. Under any scenario, it feels absolutely great, and it's good to see everybody contribute."

Minutes before he would address the media in a frenzied, joyous visiting clubhouse that was drenched in champagne and overcome with emotion, Dombrowski was embraced by Mike Ilitch, the 82-year-old owner who approached him near tears and declared this "one of the greatest days of my life."

The Tigers had done what so few of us thought they would -- come into Yankee Stadium after tanking Game 4 against a more-experienced Yankees team and with so many odds pointed toward the other side -- to make it to their first AL Championship Series in five years.

For that, a lot of the credit goes to Dombrowski, who got season-changing contributions from just about every acquisition he made.

And to Leyland, who just seemed to have the magic touch in this series.

"He knows how to handle this club," Dombrowski said. "He's got a good pulse of things, he gets good matchups. You can see it today."

This was a game that had the ramifications of March Madness, but for the Yankees, the pitching substitutions of March baseball.

Manager Joe Girardi would eventually use six relievers on this night. He replaced the injured Nova after a two-homer, two-inning outing, had seen enough of Phil Hughes after four outs, used Boone Logan to pitch to just three batters, and by the time the fifth inning came around, he was using his ace on two days' rest.

Meanwhile, the sage on the other side, Leyland, approached this do-or-die game with the calmness of a bomb disarmer.

It started with a light-hearted pregame news conference -- when he relayed the prank he pulled on Justin Verlander, determined it was better to be playing this game on the road, ribbed the knee-jerk media and talked about how great a do-or-die contest is for baseball -- and it continued on throughout the game.

He rode with Fister through struggles, particularly that bases-loaded situation in the fourth, used Max Scherzer to pick up 1 1/3 innings, then stuck with Benoit through a nail-biting 1 2/3-inning stretch before going to his boisterous closer, Jose Valverde.

"Great year for both of them," Miguel Cabrera said, just before he doused Dombrowski in champagne. "We're just so happy to be moving on now."

The moves all worked. But as Dombrowski and Leyland will tell you, it's the players who come through.

The Tigers did that, despite coming into this series with a combined 113 games of postseason experience under their belt and their two star players -- Verlander and Cabrera -- not having played October baseball since their respective rookie seasons.

The Yankees' key three -- Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera -- had combined for 361 postseason games.

"What does that matter?" Verlander asked while biting on a fat cigar, drenched in victory and beaming with joy.

"We're a calm, relaxed team. We believe in ourselves, and I think that showed."

It showed with Fister, the man Dombrowski was told by so many of his trustees would be able to handle a situation like this one.

It showed from Benoit, who weathered the storm with 50,000-plus rooting against him.

It showed in Martinez, who was brought in to protect Cabrera and continued to do exactly that on Thursday -- coming through with a crucial RBI single after the Tigers' cleanup hitter was walked intentionally.

And, as they collectively said amid champagne and bobbing heads, it showed up and down this roster that's now four wins away from the World Series.

"You have to enjoy the moment, you can't really let it get to you," veteran third baseman Brandon Inge said. "It's easy to panic in these situations, but you just have to play baseball. All the extra stuff that goes on, you just have to block it out and move on."

Now the Tigers will.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. 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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