October 17, 2013 at 2:22 am

Bob Wojnowski

Austin Jackson restores order for Tigers

Detroit — The pressure had built to the popping point, so the Tigers did what they had to do. They popped it.

Austin Jackson struck first, which was perfectly fitting. Once he did, it was as if the Tigers' offense burst, like an unclogged drain. Finally, the bases were filled and then unfilled, and on a festive Wednesday night at Comerica Park, the Tigers grabbed a slight hold on the American League Championship Series.

Oh, their 7-3 victory over the Red Sox only tied the series 2-2, but with the big three in their rotation up next, starting with Anibal Sanchez on Thursday night, this is back in their hands — or at least in their arms. Doug Fister made this one look fairly easy, which has been the norm for starting pitchers against the Red Sox. Just as important, the Tigers finally made it hard on a Boston starter, bashing the befuddled Jake Peavy.

This was a much-needed release, and much-needed relief for Jackson. He got on base four times with a pair of singles and a pair of walks, including one with the bases loaded, and he also stole a base. Earlier in the day, he learned he'd been dropped from the leadoff spot to No. 8, as Jim Leyland had no choice but to address the offense's maladies. Jackson had been a strikeout machine, whiffing 18 times while going 3-for-33 in the playoffs. He was pressing, obviously. He had lost patience, painfully.

So naturally, here came Jackson to the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the second inning of a 0-0 game. And naturally, he patiently drew an RBI walk on four straight pitches. A key adjustment, and it began earlier in the day, when Jackson was awakened to a text telling him about the lineup change.

"It's kind of weird to wake up to that," Jackson said with a grin. "Honestly, I didn't have too much of a reaction. I know I've been scuffling this postseason, it's not a secret. The goal was to get me to relax and not put too much pressure on myself."

Jackson figured it was coming, and in a way, perhaps was relieved it finally happened. He looked more comfortable at the plate and others followed. On his second at-bat, he drilled an RBI single off second baseman Dustin Pedroia, then stole second. Jackson loosened up at the opportune time, although it didn't hurt that Peavy was simply awful.

Certainly, this was the part of the formula the Tigers were desperately seeking. Jackson is too valuable in centerfield to be benched, but something had to be done to alleviate his tension at the plate.

"I think I'm actually doing Austin Jackson a favor," Leyland said before the game. "He's getting kicked around pretty good right now. I think it's easy to kick people when they're down. I'm not taking him out of the lineup, so I am sticking with him."

Change was needed

The Tigers had few other options. Despite their spectacular starting pitching this series, they trailed 2-1. After the 1-0 loss in Game 3 spoiled Justin Verlander's electric effort, the attention was seared onto Jackson and Prince Fielder. The Tigers still need Fielder to dig up his power stroke, wherever it's buried. But Jackson is the ignition, and if it lightens the weight, I'd leave him right there in the No. 8 spot.

Afterward, Leyland said the new lineup wasn't necessarily the answer, but he'd keep rolling with it. And he had to like how Jackson looked.

"He hit the ball hard a couple times, really hard," Leyland said. "I was thrilled with it. I didn't want to turn it into a circus. I wanted to tweak it a little bit."

When A-Jax is working, the Tigers' scrubbing cleanup guys can do their jobs. And sure enough, after Jackson's walk in the second, Torii Hunter lashed a two-run double and Miguel Cabrera followed with the first of his two RBI singles.

This was a dangerous game for the Tigers, and it turned into a fine showcase of their veteran demeanor. If the pressure was getting to Jackson, his voice never betrayed him, even if his swing did.

"Leyland knows what he's doing — 51 years in baseball, he's picked up some knowledge," Hunter said. "You saw what happened. Austin was relaxed and had four great at-bats. If we get Austin Jackson going, we can create some havoc."

A little help

Jackson received encouragement from all corners of the Tigers clubhouse. No one was scapegoating him for the offense's woes, but frustration was compounded by how well the Tigers had pitched. With Max Scherzer and Verlander following Sanchez — yes, it will be Scherlander for the weekend in Boston — urgency was heightened.

Hunter hadn't batted leadoff since 1999. Cabrera hadn't batted second since 2004. But this wasn't about their spots in the order. It was about getting Jackson's head in order.

"He wasn't bummed, we're all professionals," Hunter said. "It was kind of like he took a deep breath, and it just changed the mindset. He's a great athlete, and when he puts his God-given ability to work, he makes it happen. All he has to do is trust it."

Trust is a must, and as much as the Tigers trust their starting pitching, they need Jackson to trust his instincts. The pressure is never off, and the Tigers know it. But at least now, the Red Sox feel it too.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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Jose Iglesias, left, lifts off Austin Jackson's helmet in the dugout after Jackson scored for the Tigers in the fourth inning. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News