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Published: 10/17/2013

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Leyland’s move works for Tigers

Tiger's skipper knew changes would make him either hero or goat

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

DETROIT — Like any baseball manager shaking things up, Jim Leyland knew he would be either a genius or a dunce for the lineup changes he made Wednesday night.

Jokingly, he said he was merely giving the press corps something to write and talk about.

“You don’t always agree with me, and I don’t always agree with you,” Leyland said. “But I think most of [the media] agree that we had to do something. I mean, we scored one run and no runs in two of the games [so] it certainly can’t hurt … We’ve got to get on the board somehow. We’ve got to get some runs. It’s not like you can grab two or three different players … you’ve got to be creative with what we’ve got.”

The Tigers haven’t been hitting, they haven’t been scoring; they haven’t been doing much of anything except wasting some splendid pitching performances. They had scored but six runs and they trailed 2-1 in the best-of-seven ALCS against Boston entering Game 4 Wednesday at Comerica Park.

So you couldn’t really second-guess Leyland’s decision to stir things up, although the lineup he posted did raise some eyebrows. It was indeed creative as leadoff hitter Austin Jackson, who was 3 for 33 with 18 strikeouts in this postseason, was dropped seven spots in the order.

Sure enough, Jackson has a couple hits, reaches base four times, drives in two runs, steals a base, scores a run, the Tigers break it open early and the series is now even after a 7-3 Detroit victory.

Torii Hunter started in the leadoff slot for the first time since July 4, 1999, and while he had good career numbers against Boston Game 4 starter Jake Peavy (.438 average), he was a .164 leadoff hitter in those ancient days. So he had a two-run double, then scored in the five-run Tiger second.

Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter in the game and the Tigers’ top longball threat when healthy, was batting No. 2 for the first time since 2004. Not only did he slap a couple singles, he even stole a base.

He was followed by Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, and Jhonny Peralta, and there was no debate that the latter two belonged higher in the order.

But Fielder at No. 3? The slugger had zero RBI and but one extra-base hit in the eight games of the LDS and LCS prior to last night.

By dropping Jackson from No. 1 to No. 8, where he settled between Omar Infante and Jose Iglesias, Leyland created a top third of the order with hardly any speed and a bottom third that was a combined 10 of 77, a .130 average, in the playoffs.

No matter. It turned out to be pure genius.

The intent behind all the changes was to take the heat off Jackson in the leadoff spot without yanking him and his valuable glove in center field from the lineup.

“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 am sticking with him, just [in] a different spot. The strikeouts so far, it’s got to get to you a little bit. Anybody can kick somebody when they’re down a little bit. I just wanted to refresh him, put him lower in the lineup, and hopefully that will relax him a little bit.”

It certainly seemed to work.

Now if only Leyland can find an answer for Fielder, who had an 0-for-4 night.

The Tigers and their fans may have short-term concerns based on Fielder’s postseason shortcomings, but the long-term concerns may be even scarier.

The first baseman is under contract for another seven years at $24 million per season.

That deal, which still seems like a knee-jerk reaction to Martinez’s season-long absence in 2012, may impact what Detroit can do in future free-agent searches, including dealing with their own, like pitcher Max Scherzer after the 2014 season.

Even a team funded by Mike Ilitch can afford only so many $20 million players.

But that’s the future. The present is a 2-2 series with the Tigers, out of their offensive shell, hosting a pivotal Game 5 tonight.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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