Jim Leyland: omniscient or dumb luck?
That's the question you have to ask yourself this morning.
The Tigers manager opened himself to criticism from all directions with the decisions he made in the past 48 hours. Justin Verlander wouldn't make an appearance in Game 5, no matter what. Don Kelly would start at third base and bat second.
Fans and media could only flabbergast. "Sudden-death game, and the Tigers are keeping Verlander on the shelf?!"
"Don FREAKING Kelly is starting?!"
"What is he bringing Joaquin Benoit back out in the eighth for. Is Leyland even watching this game?!"
Don Kelly hit a home run in the first inning. He made defensive plays at both third base early in the game and in right field later.
And Joaquin Benoit, looking rattled and off his game after a lengthy couple of outs in the seventh inning, came out in the eighth as a new player. He didn't get through the Yankees in 1-2-3 fashion, but a scoreless eighth was all that was asked of him and he delivered.
Leyland, so often criticized by the fans and media throughout his tenure in Detroit, just guided his team through the first round of the playoffs yet again. Remember Alexis Gomez? Leyland's decisions seem strange, but they have a strange way of working out for him.
But it wasn't only redemption for Leyland.
It was redemption for Don Kelly, another oft-questioned member of the team. During the offseason, if you polled 100 Tigers fans on whether Kelly would be with the team for the entire 2011 season most, would say no. A few would flat out laugh at you. If you then asked them if they thought Kelly would become a playoff hero, even the believers would laugh at you for the preposterous query.
Donnie Kelly, playoff hero? Ha!
This is a player who washed out of both the Pittsburgh Pirates' and Arizona Diamondbacks systems. This is a guy who batted .245 in 2011, or just 1 hit in 1000 at-bats better than he batted in 2010. His career on-base percentage is a scant .285.
Yet here there was, starting for the Detroit Tigers in the deciding playoff game, stepping to the plate at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. A career. 648 OPS. Fans wondered why he was still on the team, let alone the playoff roster. Yet he got a hit in every single playoff game he appeared in. Preposterous enough of an idea as that was, he got the biggest hit of his life on Thursday: A home run that sailed over the right field wall to give his team a 1-0 lead.
A writer of a Disney movie couldn't sell that script.
The 31-year-old has the highlight of his life. That is, unless there's a better one coming. Check with Jim Leyland on that one.
And then we have Delmon Young, Kelly's polar opposite in so many ways.
Kelly was drafted in the 8th round of the 2001 draft, 237th overall. Young was drafted in the first round of the 2003 draft, first overall. Kelly had to earn everything he got, and stuck around only because of his versatility. Young was given every chance to succeed, even as he showed just how bad a left fielder could be.
Young was traded by the Rays after just one full season in the major leagues. Then he was given away by the Minnesota Twins in August. From the team's perspective, he wasn't a bust, but he just wasn't what they hoped he'd be. From the fans' perspective, Young couldn't get out of his Twins jersey fast enough.
The Tigers were happy to take him off their hands. Detroit fans were happy to welcome him with open arms.
Young hit a solo home run in the first inning, too, his third homer of the series. Three home runs in a single playoff series was "the most ever by a Tigers player in a single post-season series," the Tigers report. He's batting .316 in the post season. His on-base percentage is .381.
The Tigers advanced to the ALCS. Picked by few writers to win their division -- many to finish no higher than third place -- and then again treated again by many as if they were simply the Yankees' appetizer, Detroit is still playing games that count.
The dream is not met yet. There are eight wins to go before we can say it is. And maybe some people out there don't want believe in them quite yet.
This team has a wonderful knack at proving doubters wrong.