|Jim Leyland tells his players to not lose focus during rain delays because opponents tend to relax. (US Presswire)|
DETROIT -- Jim Leyland has impressed a lot of folks in Detroit for many reasons since becoming the Tigers manager in 2006. One of them came on a rainy night just like the one that caused Game 4 of the AL Championship Series to be postponed on Wednesday.
Leyland is so prepared and so thorough, the story goes, that during one rain delay early in '06, he quietly made his way through the Tigers clubhouse chatting up players. His basic message: Do not lose focus during rain delays. Keep your edge. Because your opponent usually relaxes.
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Do this, Leyland told his players, and we can maybe pick up three or four wins a year in these circumstances.
The Tigers surely did not need to be motivated Wednesday as they waited for the rain to pass through. It finally arrived long after Game 4 was pushed back to Thursday at 4:07 ET, delaying the Tigers' chance to sweep the Yankees and claim their first World Series berth since '06.
But how they handle things under Leyland very much could come into play when they finally do get the chance to play Thursday. And, maybe, beyond.
"We all wanted to play," starting pitcher Max Scherzer said. "MLB wanted to cancel.
"It is what it is."
Neither the Tigers nor the Yankees viewed Wednesday's postponement as a significant advantage or disadvantage. The Yankees probably have the most to lose, because if by some miracle they win three in a row, CC Sabathia will not be available to start Game 7. Had they played on Wednesday, he would have.
But they've got to get to Game 7 first. And right now, odds of Alex Rodriguez dating one of those women sitting behind the Yankees dugout are far greater.
"Doesn't matter," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said of the postponement. "We've done it a bunch of times. If they tell you to play, you play."
Play? Don't play? Whatever. The Tigers were calm, cool and collected on the verge of being coronated. They've been through this before, when Game 2 of the ALCS in Texas was postponed while it wasn't raining last October. They're well-trained, both in the art of harnessing postseason pressure and in not sweating the details.
Stuff comes up during a baseball season, and Leyland is a master at deflecting more of it than most. At 67 and in his 21st season as a big league manager, he's also been around the October block enough to know that players field more than simply grounders and fly balls.
Before the Division Series against Oakland, he was discussing playoff ticket requests.
"We've educated our players on that," Leyland said. "That's one of the things we've spoken about: Be careful, because there's going to be an aunt and an uncle who didn't get as good a seat as the other aunt and uncle, and you're going to hear about it.
"If you let it get to you and lose focus about what we're trying to do here -- and I'm not being funny ... just don't lose focus of what we're trying to do. But it should be an enjoyable time for everybody. There should be a lot of tension, there should be a lot of pressure, but there should be a lot of enjoyment."
The Tigers are on the verge of even more enjoyment, aiming to knock the Yankees out of the postseason for a third time since 2006. They reported to Comerica Park on Wednesday with every intention of doing so.
Then the forecast turned funky.
Though it still wasn't raining an hour past first pitch, it was pretty clear where this was headed. Since the hastily written rule during the 2008 Phillies-Rays World Series that states postseason games must be played to conclusion, major league officials study the Doppler more than A-Rod studies prospective hook-ups in the stands.
Last thing anybody wanted was for the Yankees to start CC Sabathia in an elimination game, have him work two innings, then have the rain fall and force him to be finished for the night.
Baseball got a taste of that during the Sabathia-Justin Verlander Game 1 duel last year in the Division Series, when rain caused a long delay in the middle of the second inning. Though both pitchers started Game 3, the Game 1 postponement essentially limited both Verlander and Sabathia to one legitimate start each (Sabathia worked an inning in relief in Game 5).
The other debacle facing the Tigers and Yankees on Wednesday was this: Say they played five innings before rain stopped the game. They would have had to return Thursday and play the final four innings, and then, theoretically, play Game 5 after that if the Yankees won.
Or how about this: Say the Tigers were leading 8-0 after seven innings Wednesday and then the monsoon moved in. Then they would have had to bring both teams back Thursday to play two innings?
So the wait was on.
"A lot of eating," Avila said. "A lot of playing cards. A lot of watching TV."
"Thank God for iPads and iPhones," Tigers reliever Phil Coke said. "I watched Netflix."
Oh yeah? What?
"Carlos Mencia. He cracks me up."
Coke said that it did stink that no rain was falling when the game was postponed, but noted that if the rain did start "and floods downtown, everybody is going to be happy they don't have to swim home."
As things turned out, nobody had to swim home. Though a hard rain did start falling by 10:30 ET.
So they'll play Thursday, with Sabathia facing Scherzer. And don't talk to Leyland's club about distractions.
"How can the weather be a distraction?" Avila asked. "It's weather.
"Some days it rains. And some days it doesn't."