Austin Jackson will not say much, but you can just imagine. Here he was, demoted to batting eighth because he wasn’t producing as the leadoff man, and in his first at-bat of the night, he steps up … with the bases loaded.
“Now batting, Austin Jaaaackson!”
The response at Comerica Park was mild, reserved, like applause for a candidate who hasn’t got a chance. Jackson eased in and lifted his bat, knowing full well he was in an awful position for a man who had struck out 18 times in the last eight games. Bases jammed, one out, means the only thing YOU CANNOT DO is strike out – or pop up. Just get a ball in play. Don’t strand your teammates. Hit it. Hit it. Unless…
Ball one…. Ball two…. Ball three.
Ball … four?
Well, yeah, that’ll work, too.
Take your base. The Tigers’ fates swung wildly Wednesday night, they are back in this American League Championship Series, back to hitting, back, with an altered lineup, in the good graces of worried fans, and it all seemed to change with that Jackson walk in the second inning. He trotted to first, Victor Martinez trotted home and the crowd exploded. Never mind that the first Detroit run in 13 innings had been driven in by a Boston pitcher named Jake Peavy. A spell had been broken. Jackson was on base. He breathed a little easier.
And his teammates went to work.
Detroit would send nine batters to the plate in that second inning; five of them would come back across it.
Jackson would single his next time up, driving in a run, his first of this series, and would steal second base, his first of this series. Then again, before the night was over, even injured Miguel Cabrera would steal second, which was a bit like watching a refrigerator roll uphill.
Take your base.
The skipper’s view
“Actually, I think I’m doing Austin Jackson a favor,” manager Jim Leyland had said before the 7-3 rout that tied the series at two games apiece and proved rumors of the death of Tigers bats were premature. “He’s getting kicked around pretty good right now…. I am sticking with him, just a different spot….
“Anybody can kick somebody when they’re down. I just wanted to refresh him, put him lower in the lineup, and hopefully that will relax him a little bit.”
Relax? Leyland should open a spa. He moved Jackson, 26, to the eight spot in the lineup for the first time in Jackson’s career, and the centerfielder responded by going 2-for-2 with two RBIs, a double, two walks, a run scored and a stolen base.
Someone should hand Leyland the budget deficit. See if he has any ideas for that one.
“Were you trying too hard?” someone had asked Jackson after the Game 3 defeat the night before.
“I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “You’re trying no matter what.”
He’s right. What altered Wednesday was not the effort but how he was delivering. Sometimes a change of view can do that. You can call Leyland a genius. You can call him lucky. I’d call him a guy who knows baseball enough to trust his feel of it, not someone else’s analysis.
The shift of Jackson brought everyone up a slot, and it had positive effects on Cabrera (two singles, two RBIs), Torii Hunter (a double, two RBIs), Omar Infante (a double, his first extra-base hit in five games) and perhaps even the pitcher, Doug Fister.
After all, you pitch a lot more confidently when you’re spotted a five-run lead – something that’s only happened once to a Tigers pitcher this postseason.
Best of the other guys
Fister, the 29-year-old right-hander from the San Joaquin Valley, was predictably tough but conveniently excellent Wednesday night. Known for drawing ground balls on his pitches, he channeled some of his fellow Detroit starters’ mojo and also struck out six batters in the first five innings, leading Boston to strand six runners over that same stretch. It wasn’t that he didn’t pitch his way into some trouble. But unlike Peavy, he pitched his way out of it.
Remember, this was a battle of the No.4 pitchers, the Ringo Starrs, the Ronnie Woods. Peavy lived down to that billing (three innings, three walks, seven earned runs). But you wouldn’t have known it by Fister’s results. He may be the least celebrated of the Detroit starters, but by the time he tired and exited after the sixth, this must-win game was tucked away, sleeping in the featherbed, a 7-1 cushion.
Even David Ortiz couldn’t lasso that one back.
(By the way, Ortiz grounded out to end the first, grounded out to end the third and flied out to start the sixth against Fister. He has been shut down by Detroit pitchers in all but one at-bat, the grand slam in Game 2. The perception is he’s a powerhouse in this series; the truth is, so far he’s not.)
And we start over …
Meanwhile, the truth for the Tigers is this: All the drama to this point, all the one-run affairs, the amazing starting pitching, the Ortiz home run in Game 2, the Cabrera strikeout in Game 3, the Hunter flip over the wall, the cop with his hands up, the Red Sox rubbing bats on beards – all of that becomes a prelude now. What we have in front of us reads this way:
Best-of-three, with three great pitchers left for Detroit. Anibal Sanchez, the ERA champ; Max Scherzer, the certain Cy Young winner; and Justin Verlander, the…
Ah, you know Verlander.
Who wouldn’t like that lineup? Who wouldn’t like those chances?
“No question,” Hunter had said when asked whether Game 4 was a must-win for Detroit, “but we were down, 2-1, in our division series and we came back against the Oakland A’s, who were pretty good. So there’s no pressure. We just go out and… try to come through with the win. And if it happens to be 2-2, you can’t ask for anything more than that.”
It is. And you can’t. Four games played. Dead even. But not back to zero. The Tigers now have played enough of this series to know its ups and downs, to believe that twists become turns, and to not feel that any cloak that falls on them has to stay for long.
Austin Jackson shed his. He never stopped trying. Sometimes they send you packing. And sometimes, you get a little gift. A new spot in the lineup. And four straight balls.
Take your base. A short walk is part of the long run. And this series isn’t close to over.