July 22, 2014 at 9:59 pm

Return to leadoff spot seems to agree with Tigers' Austin Jackson

Austin Jackson completes his trip around the bases after his home run Monday night against the Diamondbacks. (Matt York / Associated Press)

Phoenix — Not much could have disrupted Austin Jackson as he stepped toward his locker cubicle Tuesday.

It was 3:15 p.m., Mountain Time, and exactly 3 hours 25 minutes before Jackson would face the night’s first pitch in a game between the Tigers and Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

This living space, as lockers tend to be for athletes, was fronted by a padded chair that gave Jackson a landing spot and guarded a 2-foot-by-6-foot closet jammed with workout and game clothes. A pair of blue jeans, Jackson’s travel slacks for Tuesday’s bus trip from Chase Field to the Tigers team hotel, hung from a locker hook.

Jackson sat down, holding a half-eaten roast beef sandwich that had been slapped together in the clubhouse dining room. He was tranquil, as Jackson unfailingly seems to be at all moments.

Not even a discussion about hitting could rile him. And it very well might have. Jackson, it seems, would prefer to not analyze or evaluate why he has been hitting the ball so hard for nearly three weeks.

It can lead to, as they say, paralysis by analysis.

“You know how it is,” Jackson said in those languid Texan tones an audience has come to know. “It’s baseball. I’m trying to hit when it’s a pitch to hit. I’m trying not to think too much.”

He makes it sound as if hitting is a simple, though hardly casual, act. Never for a moment would he associate ease with a chore this overwhelming. He knows hitters have two-fifths of a second to decide if they will swing at a big-league pitch. He appreciates that identifying a pitch is only part of the process.

Next comes the hard part: putting the thick of a bat on that same pitch as it bores somewhere in the vicinity of home plate, maybe at 95 mph, maybe as it spins and slides at 87 or 78 or whatever velocity a pitcher has unleashed as he tries, and most often succeeds, to defeat a batter.

Small wonder Jackson does not care to dig into the wiring of a big league hitter’s mind and physical responses to a pitched baseball. It can leave you wondering why you ever signed onto this mission.

But in recent days and weeks, Jackson has been finding that dreamy place where hitters have a chance not only to hit, but to excel. Ahead of Tuesday’s game, Jackson was hitting .379 since July 2, and .439 in his last 10 games. He was hitting .396 since manager Brad Ausmus re-introduced him to the leadoff spot.

In Monday night’s 4-3 Tigers victory over the Diamondbacks, Jackson showed how indispensable he can be to an offense when he is doing what a right-handed batter of his skill has often done during 4½ somewhat erratic seasons as the Tigers center fielder.

He launched a long home run into the left-field bleachers and drove a double to right-center that he and Miguel Cabrera (RBI single) subsequently combined to turn into the winning run.

“It puts pressure on a defense right away, and a pitcher,” Ausmus said, speaking of an outfielder who, when he is settling into one of those heavy offensive streaks, tends to rap his share of extra-base hits. “And, then he has the ability to score on a single.”

Jackson prefers to treat the topic of batting leadoff as he does any conversation about hitting. It is no big deal, he said Tuesday, even if, perhaps deep within his soul and psyche, there is a certain prestige and honor in assuming leadoff responsibilities.

Jackson, of course, was the Tigers lineup’s steady No. 1 batter once he arrived in Detroit as a 23-year-old rookie and showed he had the talent and mettle to bat lead-off. He stayed there until last autumn’s playoffs, when a sour season bottomed out with a string of October strikeouts.

Jim Leyland, then the Tigers manager, dropped Jackson deeper into the order. Jackson didn’t protest. The situation, he said later, “was weighing on me.”

But when you are hitting, as Jackson so often has during stretches in Detroit, it never matters where you’re parked within a batting order. Ausmus suggested to Jackson early this month that maybe lead-off would be a good place to revisit.

Jackson says the conversation with Ausmus “wasn’t really in-depth.” He responded as he did when Leyland gave him the news last October that he was moving down a few pegs. Sure thing, he told Ausmus. Whatever makes sense for you.

“Is it a factor?” Jackson asked Tuesday, repeating a question he has asked of himself. “I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. I’m familiar with that spot.

“I just know that when I’m batting there my objective is to get on base.”

Ausmus elaborates no more than Jackson about motivations or benefits to batting lead-off. But, clearly, the hunch has paid off: a gaudy .974 OPS in July, courtesy of a .403 on-base percentage and .571 slugging percentage.

“I don’t want to say it was a last resort,” Ausmus said of his decision, which followed a fairly gruesome first three months in 2014, when Jackson was plunging toward a .238 batting average.

“But after talking with Austin, there was a sense that the comfort of being in a position he was familiar with might be helpful.”

Jackson isn’t about to dig deeper into what has made July so different.

“I think you start to get your confidence back,” he said, finishing his sandwich and reaching for some headphones. “A couple of balls fall. You just try and repeat things.”

No further self-assessment was necessary.

Jackson was at peace.

He put on his headphones, plugged them into his iPad Mini, and enjoyed a few hours of serenity ahead of Tuesday’s game.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
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