October 10, 2013 at 1:13 am

John Niyo

Will broken-bat single help Tigers' Austin Jackson fix postseason problems?

Somebody has to set the table, otherwise this dinner party will be over well before the main course.

Austin Jackson’s trying, but watching him at the plate this week it seemed as if he wasn’t sure what to do. Knife here, fork there, napkin … where?

Something’s out of place, that much is obvious. Maybe it’s just a timing issue. Maybe he’s simply not seeing the ball well. Maybe he’s pressing. But for all the talk about the Tigers’ extra-base power vanishing prior to Tuesday night’s season-saving rally in Game 4 of the American League Division Series, Jackson’s struggles in the leadoff spot may have been the team’s biggest problem.

And they may yet be, as the Tigers face another win-or-else scenario tonight in Game 5 of the Division Series at Oakland’s rowdy O.co Coliseum.

Jackson’s broken-bat single that scored the go-ahead run in the seventh inning Tuesday night at Comerica Park gave the Tigers new life, just as it gave Jackson an emotional lift.

“Hopefully that gets him going,” manager Jim Leyland said. “Sometimes that’s the magic that gets a guy going.”

We’ll see if it does. But there’s certainly no guarantee Jackson is done swinging and missing at A’s pitching.

After a leadoff double in Game 1 — on the third pitch in the series — Jackson began beating a rather pathetic path back and forth between the dugout and home plate. He went hitless his next 14 plate appearances, with 10 strikeouts, including his first three at-bats Tuesday as the home crowd’s impatience with Jackson quickly turned to boos.

Asked if that bothered him, Jackson insisted otherwise, though we all know better. Repeated failure does take a toll, eventually.

“Nah, it doesn’t affect me,” he said. “I’m trying to win a ballgame. If I let that affect me, then my head’s not in the game. …

“It’s the playoffs. You’re trying to get a win. It’s no time to really get down on yourself. You gotta keep going out there and grinding at-bats.”

When that’s not enough, you keep going inside to the batting cage and looking at video of your swings — and misses — looking for clues. That’s what Jackson was doing with his hitting coach again Tuesday. And while Lloyd McClendon didn’t care to share the details of any of their dugout chats, the two did spend time working out a few timing issues with his swing in Minnesota at the end of the regular season.

Strikeouts not helping

Jackson, who has a tendency to run hot-and-cold, emerged from an 8-for-47 slump in mid-September with a solid final week — 7-for-18 with three extra-base hits. But the A’s quickly had him out of sorts this series, flailing at fastballs, late with his swings, and seemingly baffled by it all.

“It was very tough for Austin,” McClendon said. “That’s certainly not indicative of the type of season he’s had.”

That’s not a new playoff look for Jackson, who now has 45 strikeouts in 106 postseason at-bats the last three years. And that’s another reason why the Tigers could — and should — reevaluate the need for a better leadoff option this offseason.

Jackson and Torii Hunter, the No. 2 hitter who is signed through next season, are a combined 4-for-29 at the top of the lineup in the series. It’s a big reason why the offense, already hobbled by Miguel Cabrera’s injury and Prince Fielder’s power shortage, has had such a hard time generating any serious rally threats.

Eight of Jackson’s 10 strikeouts against Oakland have come as the leadoff hitter in an inning, including his first three trips to the plate in Game 4 — each progressively worse than the last. He struck out swinging on five pitches in the first inning, swinging again on four pitches in the fourth and then looking on three pitches in the sixth.

Reaction 'gave me chills'

Yet, that seventh-inning at-bat against Sean Doolittle, the A’s left-handed setup man, offered a glimmer of hope, at least. Doolittle’s a strikeout guy who’s tough on right-handed batters and he had Jackson fooled badly with his first pitch.

“I was just trying to relax, just trying to calm myself down and take some deep breaths up there,” Jackson admitted.

He did well to foul off the next pitch — a 95-mph fastball up high — before getting a better look at a third 96 mph heater, shattering his bat to send a looping single into right field. That scored pinch runner Andy Dirks from second base to give the Tigers a 5-4 lead, and it allowed Jackson the chance to finally exhale.

“You don’t even know,” Jackson said. “I was just happy that it fell. Looking over in the dugout and seeing how pumped up the guys were for me, it kind of gave me chills.”

If that’s an ice breaker, the Tigers will be even more excited.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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