A large part of Leyland's motivation centered around facing Chien-Ming Wang in the opener. The Tigers had just five runners on base over 7 2/3 innings against him on Aug. 30. None of them advanced a base after reaching, and Carlos Guillen was thrown out trying to steal second.
Aside from a well-executed squeeze bunt last week, the Tigers were not a running team down the stretch, though offense wasn't the main concern at the wire. The way Wang pitches when he's on, it's a factor they had to address, having struggled with double plays against ground-ball pitchers.
"I just try to do what I think gives us the best chance to win the game," Leyland said. "And you've got to be careful. You don't want to get overinvolved as a manager in the playoffs, because you don't want to get carried away. But at the same time, you can't sit back on your hands, either.
"From a managerial standpoint, you've got a great chance of looking real bad or looking pretty decent. It's not that you're into that from your own standpoint. It's just that I know what we have to do to try to beat this team, in my opinion, with this particular pitcher."
The respect card: Leyland has no problem talking about sneaking in a run. He has a bone to pick, however, about sneaking in a playoff spot.
The Tigers' 19-31 finish qualifies as the worst in that span by a team to reach the postseason, according to research on baseball-reference.com. The previous record was held by the 1976 Kansas City Royals and this year's Cardinals, who both went 22-28 down the stretch but still won their respective divisions. Leyland counters that the Tigers still had the fourth-best record in the Majors after that, basically because they were 40 games over .500 before the skid began.
"The one thing I am a little bit upset about is they say we haven't played real well lately and all of a sudden, we've kind of crept in," he said. "That [ticks] me off, because I think it's totally unfair to the Detroit Tigers. We didn't creep in anywhere. We have more wins than anybody in baseball except for three teams. That's pretty impressive, in my opinion. The last time the Yankees won the World Series, they lost 16 of their last 19."
Those 2000 Yankees lost their final seven games, then dropped their Division Series opener at Oakland before recovering to earn their third straight World Series championship.
The only other team to enter the playoffs after losing five straight games or more, ironically, knocked out the Tigers in their last playoff appearance. The 1987 Twins lost their last five, then upset Detroit in the ALCS en route to their first World Series title.
Both of those teams, however, won their division. The '87 Twins had to, since there was no Wild Card then. The Tigers' fall out of the division and into the Wild Card with the season-ending skid, in that sense, is something new. Leyland took responsibility for it.
"Did we [blow] the division? Yeah, we [blew it]," he said. "We should've won it. It's hard to keep that intensity, I guess. It wasn't like we weren't trying. Should we have won it? Yes. Did we? No, we didn't do it."
No doubt, he also mentioned the 2000 Yankees to his team when he addressed them before the series, much like the underdog factor. His talk with the media almost sounded like a rehearsal.
"Everybody's got us like we're the freshmen scrimmaging the varsity," he said. "That seems to be everybody's opinion. I mean, I have the utmost respect for the New York Yankees. I don't know what's going to happen. They might beat the [tar] out of us. But I can tell you one thing: I'm not going to be afraid.
"I read the paper. I'm not a fickle person. I know everything leading up to this is that this is a slam dunk for the Yankees. But I'm also smart enough to know that if we beat the Yankees tonight, they'll be all over the Yankees."
Thames starts: The irony about Leyland's desire to run is that he started Marcus Thames in part for his power. Thames, out of the lineup since last Wednesday with a throat infection, was back at DH and batting eighth on Tuesday.
"I think he's a little bit better now," said Leyland, who was up on Monday night looking at matchups. "I don't know how he's going to do, obviously, but he's had a couple hits off [Wang]. I'm going to take a shot that Marcus is all right, and if Marcus centers one, he might hit it out."
With Craig Monroe batting seventh and Brandon Inge ninth, the bottom third of the Tigers order on Tuesday combined for 79 home runs in the regular season, 36 more than Nos. 3-5 hitters Sean Casey (injured for part of the season), Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen.
Fans of Fredi: The Marlins' managerial change on Tuesday was news on both sides of this playoff series. While the Yankees were no doubt disappointed in the dismissal of Joe Girardi, a former coach under Joe Torre, Fredi Gonzalez's hiring was a throwback to the Dave Dombrowski era in Florida.
Not only was Gonzalez a coach for the Marlins from 1999-2001 while Dombrowski was the general manager, he was the franchise's first Minor League hiring years earlier, tabbed to manage their Double-A affiliate in Erie in 1992 before the big-league club began playing games.
"He's a very knowledgeable baseball guy," said Tigers assistant GM Al Avila, who worked in the same post in Florida when Gonzalez coached. "He knows how to motivate. He knows how to communicate. And he knows how to manage the game on the field. And he's learned it from the bottom up. He's paid his dues.
"Anybody can say I'm happy for him and he's going to do a great job, but the reality is, he's always done a good job, always been a great manager wherever he's been."