Leyland's message seemed to have some aggressiveness.
It was three batters into the bottom of the first inning, and all three batters Bonderman had faced were on base. Johnny Damon doubled after getting into a 3-0 count, Derek Jeter singled, then Bobby Abreu drew a four-pitch walk. It would seemingly be a situation for pitching Chuck Hernandez to come to the mound and talk mechanics with Bonderman, trying to figure out why he can't locate the plate.
Instead, Leyland marched out -- which he'll do when the message is more mental than mechanical. It was short and sweet.
"You don't want to know what I told him," Leyland said. "I can tell you that much."
Maybe not the exact words, but Bonderman conveyed the message.
"Be aggressive," Bonderman said. "Quit trying to nitpick and go right at them."
It wasn't an instant difference. Bonderman induced the next batter, Hideki Matsui, to fly out to shallow center on an 0-1 pitch, but promptly fell behind on a 3-0 count to Jason Giambi before his fly ball to deep left brought in Damon. Melky Cabrera lined a 2-1 pitch to left for a 2-0 Yankee lead and a multi-run opening inning reminiscent of Bonderman's struggles last year.
After that, Bonderman's execution turned. An inning-ending flyout from Robinson Cano started Bonderman on a string of 19 outs in a 21-batter stretch. Just two other Yankees reached three-ball counts against Bonderman until he walked Damon with one out in the eighth.
"He got more aggressive, mixed in some changeups and started pitching inside better, especially to lefties," Leyland said. "You do what you need to do. Getting the ball inside to their lefties was big."
Not only have left-handers hit about 25 points higher than right-handers against Bonderman over the last three years, but their walk rate has also been better. Of his 21 walks over 27 1/3 innings this season entering Wednesday, 15 had come against left-handed hitters.
"If I can get the ball over the plate, I'm good right now," Bonderman said. "I'm not getting beat up. I'm just walking too many guys."
After the first-inning woes, Bonderman used both sides of the plate, but he also decided to make hitters put the ball in the play. If he was going to lose, he'd lose on hits -- not walks.
"I don't know if I was trying to be too careful," Bonderman said. "After that, I told myself, 'I'm not walking anybody else. I don't care what happens.' I tried to just make guys put the ball in play. Fortunately, my stuff was good enough to get some outs."
Once he was working with a lead, his aggressiveness grew. Six years after Marcus Thames homered off Randy Johnson at Yankee Stadium in his first Major League at-bat, his two-run shot off Andy Pettitte in the fifth inning put the Tigers ahead for good in the Bronx.
Bonderman came out for the bottom half of the inning and was back in the dugout five pitches later. Alberto Gonzalez, playing in place of A-Rod, grounded out before Damon popped out and Jeter grounded out.
"The thing with him," Jeter said of Bonderman after the game, "is you hope he struggles with his control. If he's throwing strikes, you can't be too patient."
Fifty-seven of Bonderman's 100 pitches on the night went for strikes, but his ratio vastly improved from the fifth inning on. Two solo homers from Placido Polanco leading off the sixth and eighth innings, plus a Carlos Guillen RBI infield single in the sixth, gave Bonderman more cushion.
As a result, Bonderman was well shy of 100 pitches as he took the mound for the eighth inning. And a Tigers bullpen that could've gotten some heavy usage needed to contribute just four outs from left-hander Clay Rapada.
"He pitched great," catcher Ivan Rodriguez said of Bonderman. "That's him."
Bonderman is in no hurry to call this a defining start or a confidence builder. He readily admits there will be games when he'll struggle, but he believes that if he can carry this approach, he can roll through some starts.
"I feel like it's a good building block," Bonderman said, "but it's one start out of whatever we have left."
If Bonderman can carry it, those starts he has left have a better chance to be quality ones.
"Hopefully, this is a real positive step forward for him," Leyland said, "that he can build off this one and feel confident, get in a groove. That would be great for us."