- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2006

DETROIT — Three years ago, they lost 119 games and were a punch line. You know, the Detroit Tigers … ha, ha, ha.

Funny game, baseball.

The Tigers are the ones laughing loudest now. And the New York Yankees? Well, they’re the joke.

Jeremy Bonderman was perfect for five innings and sublime for 81/3 in leading Detroit to an 8-3 victory in Game 4 yesterday to win the American League playoff series and eliminate A-Rod, Derek Jeter and the other high-priced, high-profile Yankees.

“I didn’t think we’d be here this year,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “All we wanted to do was look at our pieces and parts. This came a little faster than I expected.”

Days removed from being swept by last-place Kansas City on the final weekend of the regular season, the wild-card Tigers clawed their way back from an 0-1 deficit to win a series many thought would be severely lopsided.

Those predictions were correct: The Yankees didn’t have a chance.

“You kind of get tired of giving the other team credit,” slumping third baseman Alex Rodriguez said. “At some point you’ve got to look in the mirror and say, ‘I [stunk].’”

For the second straight year, the Yankees were eliminated in the second round, their galaxy of All-Stars sent home.

“I’m stunned,” New York general manager Brian Cashman said. “This team fooled me to some degree.”

These man-eating Tigers simply devoured the AL East champions, outplaying New York in every phase to advance to their first AL Championship Series since 1987. On Tuesday, the Tigers will play at Oakland in Game 1, the first postseason meeting between the clubs since 1972.

Bonderman allowed just five singles, walking off to a thunderous ovation with an 8-1 lead. Reliever Jamie Walker gave up Jorge Posada’s two-run homer.

After the final out, the Tigers mobbed each other in the infield and carried Leyland off the field on their shoulders, a fitting ride for the first-year Detroit manager who began his baseball career as a catcher in the team’s system.

“He’s led us through the tough times that we had this season,” third baseman Brandon Inge said.

Moments later, the Tigers emerged from their clubhouse armed with champagne bottles, and they uncorked them during a victory lap around Comerica Park, spraying fans who danced to Kiss’ “Rock and Roll All Night.”

“These fans have been here for some of the worst things,” outfielder Craig Monroe. “We wanted them to be able to have a party tonight.”

Magglio Ordonez and Monroe each homered off Jaret Wright as the Tigers built an 8-0 after six innings and coasted through the final three.

The Yankees are heading home to face owner George Steinbrenner’s wrath and what could be the coldest New York baseball winter in years. Steinbrenner may have big changes in store for his $200 million ballclub, which hasn’t won a World Series since 2000.

One of the Yankees’ offseason moves could be trading Rodriguez, who capped another forgettable October by going 1-for-14 (.071) and going without an RBI for the second straight postseason.

“I have no one to blame but myself,” he said. “I know I certainly have to do well for this team to win.”

As for his future, “I’m 100 percent committed to this team,” he said defiantly. “I want to be here. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

Bernie Williams, Gary Sheffield and Mike Mussina also may bolt the Bronx.

And New York manager Joe Torre is sure to feel some extra heat from the demanding Boss. After all, the Yankees are just 3-10 in the postseason since 2004.

“Right now, it’s just tough,” Torre said. “You have to be able to perform. We didn’t pitch as well as we wanted to and they did. It’s surprising more than disappointing.”

Blanked in Game 3 by Kenny Rogers, the Yankees and their reputed Murderer’s Row didn’t score off Bonderman until the seventh, snapping a scoreless streak of a season-high 202/3 innings. This from a team that scored 930 runs during the regular season but managed just 14 in the series, getting drubbed 14-3 in the final two games.

“I just wanted to go out and attack them,” Bonderman said. “I just wanted to leave everything I had on the field, and I think I did. This is the greatest thrill in the world. You can’t ask for anything better.”

Feeding off a frenzied crowd, Bonderman retired the first 15 Yankees in order before Robinson Cano dribbled a single through the middle for New York’s first hit. Bonderman, though, wasn’t about to let a big lead slip away like he did last Sunday when the Royals overcame a 6-0 deficit to beat the Tigers, a loss that cost Detroit an AL Central title and home-field advantage in Round 1.

As it turns out, the Tigers and their $80-plus million payroll didn’t need any such luxuries.

Bonderman pitched in shadows for the first three innings as the October sun helped hide his fastball, and the approaching darkness only seemed to make the Yankees more impatient. The right-hander needed just 31 pitches to get through the first four innings.

In the fifth, Sheffield pulled an 0-1 pitch deep to left field that missed being a home run by a couple feet. Bonderman wasn’t rattled and struck out New York’s hardest swinger on the next pitch. After fanning Posada for the third out, Bonderman spun around and pumped his fist.

Desperate for a win, Torre dropped Rodriguez to eighth in the batting order. It was the first time he hit that low since May 7, 1996, when he was a 20-year-old shortstop for the Seattle Mariners.

Rodriguez may wish he was back in Washington state.

If things weren’t bad enough for the $25 million a year third baseman, Rodriguez’s error in the third allowed the Tigers to open a 4-0 lead.

With two outs, Ordonez hit a routine grounder at Rodriguez, who didn’t field it cleanly and then rushed his throw to first. Gary Sheffield came off the bag but couldn’t flag down Rodriguez’s bullet.

Immediately, the “A-Rod” chants cascaded down on baseball’s most critiqued player, who patted the infield dirt with his cleat and twice removed his cap while waiting for the next pitch.

Carlos Guillen then dropped a single over Cano’s head at second, sending Ordonez to third. And when Ivan Rodriguez followed with an RBI single to center, the Tigers were up by four and could start planning their trip to California.

Wright won three playoff games — two over the Yankees — as a 21-year-old rookie for Cleveland in 1997. But nearly a decade and a couple shoulder surgeries later, the right-hander couldn’t get past the third.

He allowed three earned runs and five hits in 22/3 innings.

If the Yankees weren’t already feeling the pressure, the Tigers tightened their noose around New York’s necks by scoring three runs in their second at-bat.

Ordonez led off with a 422-foot shot to the deepest part of expansive Comerica, where doubles turn to triples and deep flys become easy outs. Ivan Rodriguez drew a one-out walk and Monroe, who hit two dramatic homers during the regular season, hit his second of these playoffs.

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