DETROIT - As a reborn baseball town erupted in splashes of orange and blue around them, the Detroit Tigers danced in the infield, kicking up dirt like kids on a sandlot.
They grabbed Jim Leyland, hoisted him on their shoulders and carried him off the field as 43,000 delirious fans screamed as one. The manager's ride was a short one, but the party was just getting started.
The Tigers are still on the prowl. The mighty New York Yankees struck out.
Three years after losing 119 games, the Tigers moved back among baseball's biggest cats with an 8-3 victory yesterday in Game 4 over the Yankees, whose $200 million payroll couldn't help them against Detroit's pitching.
"This is the best of the best, to beat the best team in baseball," said Craig Monroe, who hit a two-run homer. "This is baseball for us, right here in Detroit."
Once a punchline, the Tigers punched out the big, bad Yankees.
"You kind of get tired of giving the other team credit," third baseman Alex Rodriguez said after another terrible October. "At some point you've got to look in the mirror and say, 'I sucked.'•"
Jeremy Bonderman was perfect for five innings and sublime until the ninth as the Tigers moved into the AL championship series against Oakland by eliminating A-Rod, Derek Jeter and the other high-priced, high-profile Yankees.
Given little chance before the series started or when they were down 0-1, Detroit won three straight to stun the AL East champions, who could be facing a colder New York baseball winter than normal.
It all happened faster than
Leyland, the Tigers' no-nonsense skipper, or anyone could have ever imagined. The feisty 61-year-old ended a six-year retirement and took over a team that had averaged 100 losses since 2001 and one he figured would fight with Kansas City to stay out of last place in the AL Central.
Instead, Leyland has taken the Tigers near the top.
"I didn't think we'd be here this year," he said. "All we wanted to do was look at our pieces and parts we had and see if we needed to change any. I thought it would be a year or so before we got into a situation like this. This came a little bit quicker than I expected."
And, he used a pinstriped plan to make it happen.
During spring training in Florida, Leyland made his players study the Yankees. He wanted them to emulate their Bronx-born bravado, right down to the way they run onto the field.
"I said, 'That's the level we want to get to, and we've got to get that quiet swagger and confidence that the Yankees got,'•" he said. "I used them as an example. It's kind of ironic that we got to play them, and fortunately beat them."
The Tigers' chances seemed slim just a few days ago when they were swept at home on the final weekend of the regular season by the last-place Royals, who denied them a division title. Detroit had to settle for a wild-card berth and a first-round matchup with the Yankees.
It seemed lopsided. It sure was. The Yankees didn't have a chance.
These man-eating Tigers simply devoured New York, outplaying the Yanks in every phase to advance to their first AL championship series since 1987. On Tuesday, the Tigers will play at Oakland in Game 1 of the AL championship series, the first postseason meeting between the clubs since 1972.
"Nobody gave us a shot in this series," Bonderman said. "That motivated us."
The Yankees never found any spark, and for the second straight year the star-studded squad is going home after a first-round exit.
"I'm stunned," New York general manager Brian Cashman said. "This team fooled me to some degree. Detroit was on top of their game and we weren't, and that combination was lethal for us."
Losing stung and now the Yankees will have to face owner George Steinbrenner's wrath. He may have big changes in store for his underachieving ballclub, which hasn't won a World Series since 2000.
Bonderman allowed just five singles, walking off to a thunderous ovation with an 8-1 lead.
After the final out, the Tigers mobbed each other before turning their affection to Leyland, who began his baseball career in 1963 as a catcher in Detroit's system.
"That was awesome," third baseman Brandon Inge said. "That's so deserving. I don't know how many people have been carried off the field on their shoulders, but I tell you what, if there were a select few that deserve it, he is definitely one of them."
Moments later, the Tigers emerged from their clubhouse armed with champagne bottles and they uncorked them during a victory lap around Comerica Park, slapping hands and spraying fans.
"These fans have been here for some of the worst things," Monroe said. "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.
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 202/3 innings.
This from a team which scored 930 runs during the regular season but managed just 14 in the series, getting drubbed 14-3 in the final two games.
"You've got to play," Jeter said. "You don't win games on paper. You've got to come out here and perform. And they pretty much overmatched us in this series."
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.
"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."
Notes:Bernie Williams, who signed with the Yankees 21 years ago, said he wants to take some time before deciding his next move. ... The Tigers' wild clubhouse celebration included Hall of Famer Al Kaline, former Tigers slugger Willie Horton and utility infielder Ramon Santiago dancing to some Latin music. ... The Yankees' scoreless streak was their longest since the 2000 postseason.
/AP-CS-10-07-06 2211EDT42.33168 -83.04792