Leyland's steadiness just what Tigers need
ST. PETERSBURG -- Baseball's winningest active manager propped his legs up on the desk, locked hands behind his head and blurted: "This isn't a game for rah-rah speeches because you play 162 games. This is a game for staying steady, keeping the flow the same."
Leyland's Detroit Tigers, fortified with the addition of slugging first baseman Prince Fielder at a cost of $214 million, were supposed to take the American League Central Division and go off and hide. Before the first pitch of 2012 was even thrown.
A sub-.500 record in June wasn't in the cards or in the euphoric rhetoric before the season began.
But as the Tigers took the field against the Rays on Thursday night at Tropicana Field, their potential was far from being in full bloom.
Yet as the clock crept past 10 p.m. ET and left fielder Quintin Berry squeezed Elliot Johnson's fly ball for the final out, the Tigers sealed a 5-2 conquest of the Rays, a convincing hint that their potential is in sight.
The Tigers remain in third place, four games out of first, but with the victory are only two games (37-39) under .500. On June 8, the Tigers were 26-32 and six games back.
Yes, they're gaining on the field.
"A good game, we pitched very well," a relaxed Leyland said. "We got some big hits. We could have had a few more runs, but didn't get them. Yes, it was a good game."
"We played a good game tonight," said Tigers CEO/general manager Dave Dombrowski, architect of this favored juggernaut. "For us, it's more about the consistency aspect. That's what we need to do.
"We've shown flashes [of the potential], we're starting to swing the bats a little better. Max Scherzer pitched well tonight and our bullpen has been solid recently. We just need to put together a streak of consistent games, which we've struggled to do. We're getting there."
It's difficult to determine whether the Tigers are a mystery or a disappointment.
Fielder is batting .300, with 12 homers and 50 RBIs, while Cabrera, 2011's batting champ, has been on fire. Against the slumping Rays on Thursday night, he had four hits in five at-bats, including his 16th homer. He's driven in 62 runs, including 11 in his last 13 games.
Are the Tigers approaching their potential?
"I don't talk about that," Cabrera said. "We have to do it every night."
The thing about Leyland is he has that hard-to-achieve knack for handling difficult situations with an uncanny calm.
Considering the preseason anticipation and buildup, some managers would have reacted much differently.
He's won more games (1,625) than any active skipper and taken home three Manager of the Year awards. He's forgotten more baseball than many of today's younger managers know.
"People think you have to go on this motivational thing all the time," he said, suggesting it seldom works. "Most of these guys are very proud. Playing baseball is what they do.
"You shouldn't get too high when you win, or too low when you lose. Like I've always said on nights you get beat, 'Do what you do every other day, you go home, because tomorrow you're going to win.'"
Leyland is 67, but has the energy of a man 20 years his junior. His passion for baseball hasn't waned. He's signed through this year only, but I suspect he's not about to shed the uniform anytime soon.
"I love it. I like the competition," he said, his eyes bright. "I was out [away from managing] six years, so that six-year sabbatical freshened me up quite a bit. It worked out pretty good for me, because I have a lot of energy. When I don't have that, I won't do it anymore. I love coming to the park every day."
Having a team with the Tigers' potential helps.
Mention the preseason predictions and Leyland bristles.
"Well, I don't pay any attention to that," he said. "Last year, we were supposed to finish fourth, won 95 games and took the division by 15 games. We've showed some signs of life lately and hopefully we'll get better.
"Nobody in baseball has really jumped out. The Phillies have had their injuries and now the Yankees have some injuries. We've had a bunch of them and you just have to fight through those things."
"No, not really," he said. "When you've been in it as long as I have, you know the highs and lows and you just stay the same every day -- don't try to get tricky and don't try to get too creative. At the end of the day, you think it will work out."
Of course, there's the unfinished business of the postseason.
After winning their division last year by the largest margin in the Major Leagues, the Tigers lost to Texas in the American League Championship Series in six games and watched the Rangers play in the World Series against eventual winner St. Louis.
Leyland believes the AL Central will end up much like it did last year.
"I don't know who will win, but last year we went on the run," he said. "Whoever goes on the run will end up winning, and hopefully that will be us."
Pausing, Leyland said: "This is a good team that really hasn't played as well as I think it will when we really get rolling. Hopefully, we have something to look forward to. We've just kind of staggered along."
And then, the Tigers sent the Rays to their fourth straight setback. They're 5-11 since they were atop the AL Eat on June 11. Now, they're in third place, 6 1/2 games behind the Yankees.
Ask Leyland if Thursday's victory will carry over and there's a frown.
"In baseball there's really no such thing as momentum," he said. "You're only as good as your next day's pitcher."
And Friday night that will be 2011 Cy Young Award/MVP winner Justin Verlander against the Rays' 10-game winner, David Price.
One thing is certain: There will be no pregame speeches from Jim Leyland.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.