DETROIT — 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.”
Detroit won its 11th American League pennant and first since 2006. The Tigers have five days off before the World Series starts Wednesday at defending champion St. Louis or 2010 winner San Francisco.
The Yankees, with a big league-high $222 million payroll, hit .188 in the postseason — a record low for a team that played at least seven games — and .157 in the LCS. New York went quietly in the ninth inning, with the Comerica Park crowd chanting “Sweep!” while the last three batters were retired in order.
In the postseason, Detroit’s rotation has been impeccable. Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister allowed only two earned runs against the Yankees. New York was shut out once and totaled six runs in the series.
“We all know what’s at stake, we all know every single game’s different, we need to go out there and pitch our best,” Scherzer said. “When we do that, that’s when we give the team a chance to win.”
Scherzer allowed a run and two hits in 5 2-3 innings, struck out 10 and walked two.
The Yankees, without a World Series title since 2009, lost Jeter to a broken ankle in the opening game, and the slumping Rodriguez was benched for Game 3. He was out of the starting lineup for Game 4 too, but A-Rod did have one last chance to turn his postseason around when Scherzer was lifted for left-hander Drew Smyly with two outs in the sixth and the Tigers up 6-1.
As Smyly finished warming up, Rodriguez popped out of the dugout to hit for Raul Ibanez, but with runners at the corners, he hit a routine fly to center field. His groundout in the ninth capped a 3-for-25 (.125) playoffs with no RBIs.
New York owes the 37-year-old Rodriguez $114 million over the next five years. His contract includes a provision that requires he approve trades, and he wants to stay.
“I love New York City and I love everything about being a Yankee,” he said. “The highs are very high and the lows are extremely low.”
The Yankees failed to win a game in a postseason series for only the fifth time. They hadn’t been swept since a best-of-five ALCS against Kansas City in 1980. The last team to sweep four straight against them had been Cincinnati in the 1976 World Series.
After a rainout Wednesday, Game 4 started under a sunny sky, and Detroit immediately took the lead on series MVP Delmon Young’s RBI single in the first. Young became the first player with four game-winning RBIs in one postseason series, according to STATS, LLC.
About the only thing the Yankees had done well in this postseason was pitch, and Sabathia failed to keep that going. He didn’t have much help from his defense. Mark Teixeira, a four-time Gold Glove winner at first base, misplayed two grounders in the third — one for an infield hit and one for an error.
New York’s hitting was abysmal throughout the playoffs. Robinson Cano was at .075 (3 for 40) with no home runs, including a 29 at-bat hitless streak. Curtis Granderson was 3 for 30 with 16 strikeouts, Nick Swisher hit .167 (5 for 30) with two RBIs, Russell Martin hit .161 (5 for 31) with one RBI and Eric Chavez finished 0 for 16 with eight strikeouts.
“It wasn’t one guy. It wasn’t two guys,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “It was a bunch of guys.”