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Leyland's gamble late in Game 2 puts Tigers in near-inescapable hole

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Leyland argues with the ump after Prince Fielder was tagged out on another dubious Tigers call. (Getty Images)  
Leyland argues with the ump after Prince Fielder was tagged out on another dubious Tigers call. (Getty Images)  

SAN FRANCISCO -- Jim Leyland surrendered the lead. Gave it up willingly.

Here it is. Take it, he said.

That's not something a great manager should do late in a 0-0 game.

Runs are precious. The lead is everything.

But the Tigers' beloved old-school manager didn't think so. He figured it would be OK to let the Giants go up 1-0 in the bottom of the seventh inning.

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So he called for his middle infielders to remain at double-play depth rather than pull them in and give them a chance to cut off the go-ahead runner, the awkwardly speedy Hunter Pence, who was at third base.

The Giants had the bases loaded with nobody out, so the Tigers were in a tough spot either way. But you absolutely have to pull the infield in there, and gamble you can keep the game scoreless. Even a 1-0 deficit is deadly there.

The Giants' bullpen isn't perfect, but it's better than the Tigers'. And it's better than the Tigers lineup right now. Detroit had its sixth-place hitter due up to start the eighth inning, so there was no guarantee Miguel Cabrera or Prince Fielder would bat again if the game ended in nine innings.

The Giants also had the bottom of their lineup coming up. This was the time for Leyland to gamble.

He knew a two-run hit and a big inning would doom them. But a one-run deficit put them in a hole that's the next half-step up from doom.

"Bad move," one major-league manager said.

Bad move indeed.

The Giants' No. 8-spot hitter, Brandon Crawford, hit a routine grounder to the shortstop that Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante turned into a double play. Leyland had the result he wanted, a 1-0 deficit. Yet he also had a big hole.

"We felt like we played double-play depth because we felt like we couldn't give them two runs. That's why we did that, and we got the double play," Leyland said.

"To be honest with you, we were absolutely thrilled to come out of there with one run, absolutely thrilled."

Leyland might have saved the celebration. Any deficit there was disastrous.

It would take Nate Silver to figure all the combinations and permutations to know for sure whether Leyland did the right thing. And Leyland's gut and smarts have won him a lot of games and gotten him to two World Series.

But I sincerely suspect he is overrating the advantage of trading a run for two outs there. They'd batted seven innings and had yet to score against a pitcher, Madison Bumgarner, who was starting almost out of necessity after his troublesome two previous 2012 postseason outings. It's nice Leyland had the confidence in his troops to think a 1-0 lead wasn't insurmountable.

But I don't think it was well founded. They'd had only two hits against Bumgarner, who had allowed 10 runs in eight innings in his past two starts but was barely reaching 90 mph on Thursday night. The Tigers confronted the very real possibility their ninth inning would end with Infante making an out with Cabrera on deck.

And that is what happened -- the Giants won Game 2 of the World Series 2-0 after adding another run in the eighth. San Francisco now leads the series 2-0. The 1996 Yankees and 1986 Mets overcame that same deficit, even going on the road for Game 3, so it can be done.

But the odds are stacked against it. This is no time for playing it safe.

"I mean, we had to score anyway," Leyland said. "You give them two, it makes a little bit tougher, obviously, but we felt like we didn't want them to open it up."

You give them two, you are dead. But hold them to nothing, and you are in business.

Show a little faith that your pitcher (and it was rookie Drew Smyly, more on that below) can get Crawford on a strikeout or weak grounder.

Understand that while 1-0 isn't quite as bad as 2-0, it is still very bad.

There aren't a lot of teams like the Orioles, who went the whole season without giving up a lead in the eighth or ninth inning. Most teams hold those late-inning leads 90 percent of the time. Playing for a 10-percent chance to win isn't worth it.

Leyland needed the score to stay 0-0, whether he wants to face it or not.

Obviously the situation isn't great when Gregor Blanco's attempt at a sacrifice bunt dies just inside the third-base line, becoming a hit to load the bases with nobody out. (By the way, I was standing with a Giants executive afterward, and he heaped praise on the "wonderful" job a grounds crew member did "today and throughout the regular season" when he came over to say hi. I'd say so!)

Obviously, the situation still isn't great if the bases are still loaded if Crawford grounds into a force-out at home. But the Giants then needed a pinch hitter to come through, and there are no world beaters on the bench. (Giants manager Bruce Bochy uses Aubrey Huff, who is believed to have retired already, to pinch hit on occasion, though this time he called on Ryan Theriot, who struck out swinging.)

"We got the double-play ball and we got out of it, and it actually worked out real good for us," Leyland said.

I'm not sure what he means by "real good" when the go-ahead runner scored in a nothing-nothing game. But it seems like the strategy was a might too conservative when you're hoping for a deficit.

That's opposed to the call of Leyland's longtime third-base coach and righthand man Gene Lamont, who sent the plodding Prince Fielder home on Delmon Young's no-out double into the left-field corner in the second inning.

Fielder was tagged out after two nice throws and a nifty tag by catcher Buster Posey, with credit also to home-plate umpire Dan Iassogna, who noticed Fielder's slide was even slower than his running. It was the first 7-4-2 play in World Series history, so it took quite a bit. But there was no saying the call "worked out real good."

Lamont didn't know it, but that would turn out to be the Tigers' best threat in a game in which they had only two hits, that double plus a single two innings later by Infante, who was wiped out when he was picked off first by Bumgarner.

The Giants are outpitching and outhitting the Tigers, but they are surely outsmarting them, too.

"If I had it to do over," Lamont said, "I would have held him."

I think Leyland is being honest in his belief that his two-outs-for-one-run swap was a positive development for the Tigers. I also believe Leyland's gut is a great one. But sometimes the math doesn't add up. And this, I believe, is one of those times.

Leyland is almost bullet-proof now after years of playing the crusty manager brilliantly. He is beloved by the national media, which appreciates the effort he puts in, and the caricature he plays to a T.

We all still love it when we enter his spring training office, and he's gabbing away about his team, puffing away on a cig.

We feel like we're back in the 1950s and '60s, when most of us were born, before we found out cigarettes are more foolish than any baseball strategy.

We love it, too, that the sign that covers the clubhouse door says, "No Spikes, No Smoking, No Media." Of course, there's plenty of all three in there, but the smoking is most noticeable.

Leyland is almost immune to criticism, it seems. When he left the Rockies, no one said he quit on the team. And folks were still lining up to pay him millions more to be a manager.

I don't blame them for that. He definitely knows his stuff, and he is a great ambassador for his team.

He's a terrific guy. But he makes mistakes. It's just that nobody points them out.

He's been around so long, you figure he's seen it all and he knows it all. That isn't quite true.

He erred by pitching to Albert Pujols back in the 2006 World Series. And he erred a couple times here in Game 2. Oh yeah, the other mistake was summoning the rookie Smyly to try to pitch his way out of the seventh-inning jam when Phil Coke was available and rested. Leyland made a brilliant call to make Coke the closer once it was clear Jose Valverde lost his arm angle and was throwing fat, flat meatballs up there. (I say brilliant because we geniuses in the media were calling for the safer, more tested Octavio Dotel or another righthander, Al Alburquerque.)

But since Coke isn't exactly Mariano Rivera as a closer or even firmly ingrained after a week on the job, and since the seventh inning was going to be a key inning, better to employ him there. Leyland did use Coke in the eighth, also a non-save situation, and he ended a threat after the Giants had made it 2-zip.

By then, the Giants had that two-run lead Leyland dreaded.

The game was in the bag. Heck, it was pretty much that way at 1-0. No matter who was celebrating in the Tigers dugout.

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