By NOAH TRISTER, Associated Press
DETROIT (AP) — Phil Coke stormed into Jim Leyland's office and sprayed the veteran manager with some of Detroit's celebratory bubbly.
When Leyland tried to take cover in a bathroom, Coke chased him — a fitting scene involving an unsung reliever whose role changed with little warning and a skipper who never stopped believing in his team.
"I just reminded everybody when we took our punches all year, 'You know what? Let's just wait till the end, and then if we have underachieved, I will be the first one to admit it,'" Leyland said. "So hopefully we've quieted some doubters now. The guys just stepped it up when we had to."
Leyland and the Tigers are heading to the World Series now. Max Scherzer capped a stupendous stretch for Detroit's rotation, and the Tigers won their second pennant in seven years by beating the New York Yankees 8-1 Thursday for a four-game sweep of the AL championship series.
Miguel Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta hit two-run homers in a four-run fourth inning against CC Sabathia, who was unable to prevent the Yankees from getting swept in a postseason series for the first time in 32 years.
Without a World Series title since 1984, Detroit lost to Texas in last year's ALCS, lost slugger Victor Martinez to a season-ending knee injury in January and quickly replaced his offense by signing Prince Fielder. The excitement of that bold acquisition subsided a bit when the Tigers struggled to a 26-32 start in the AL Central, but they overtook the Chicago White Sox in the final 10 days of the regular season and won the division with an 88-74 record, matching the Cardinals for the fewest wins among the 10 playoff teams.
Through it all, Leyland kept an even keel. There was urgency in the Detroit clubhouse, but never panic. The closest the manager came to a major change of course was when closer Jose Valverde gave up four runs in the ninth inning of Game 1 against the Yankees.
Detroit won that game anyway, and Coke got the save in Games 2 and 3 in Valverde's place. Coke also was on the mound at the end of the finale.
"It's been really fun," Coke said. "It's been a blast. I couldn't ask for a better opportunity than have us going to the World Series, have a chance to participate and do the best job I can for the team."
Contrast that to the Yankees, who changed lineups drastically throughout the playoffs in a futile attempt to jump-start an anemic offense.
After scoring in just three of 39 innings during the series, New York headed home to face unpleasant questions about its future following a postseason of awful hitting, benched stars and veterans showing the wear and tear of age. Alex Rodriguez, the $275 million third baseman, was out of the starting lineup Thursday for the third time in the playoffs. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera could only watch following season-ending injuries.
Rodriguez at least played Thursday, flying out with two on in the sixth as a pinch hitter and grounding out in the ninth.
"Baseball's not an easy game," Rodriguez said. "You wish you could go out and, again, hit .400 and hit the ball all over the park and hit home runs but the one thing that I'm proud of is just kept coming out, working hard, battling, never gave up. And we win as a team, we lose as a team."
The game ended with Fielder, Detroit's $214 million acquisition, catching Jayson Nix's popup. The Tigers spilled onto the field for a celebration that began near second base and eventually moved closer to the third-base line.
General manager Dave Dombrowski hugged Leyland — who is in the final year of his contract — while owner Mike Ilitch rubbed the 67-year-old manager's right shoulder.
"I've got a great bunch. We don't have one hot dog in the bunch," Ilitch said. "They're all great guys. ... The Tigers are something special."