Jackson springs into action to spark Tigers
Leadoff hitter motors Detroit offense while flying under the radar
OAKLAND -- Oakland Coliseum was as loud as it had been all year. The A's and Tigers were locked in a scoreless tie in the top of the third inning of the deciding Game 5 of the American League Division Series, and A's rookie starter Jarrod Parker had been matching Tigers ace Justin Verlander pitch for pitch.
But after Omar Infante led off the third with a single, the Tigers' least-talked-about offensive star did what he's been doing all year, and Detroit had all the runs it would need.
Leadoff man and center fielder Austin Jackson, whose breakout year is one of the major reasons the Tigers are advancing to their second consecutive AL Championship Series, doubled into the gap in left-center field, driving in the game's first run. He would go on to deliver an RBI single in the pivotal four-run seventh that ended any drama in the game, and the Tigers were pouring champagne all over each other in a raucous postgame clubhouse, wondering whether they'll play the Yankees or Orioles in the next round.
"It was just a great win for us," Jackson said. "This was a pressure situation for us, and we knew coming in it was going to be a tough battle. You've got to tip your hat to Oakland and what they accomplished this year. We knew it was going to be tough, and it definitely has to be up there with one of the better games we've played this year."
A lot will be said about the performance of Verlander, who spun a 122-pitch shutout with 11 strikeouts in a must-win game. And a lot has been said about the Tigers' vaunted middle of the batting order, featuring Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and slugger Prince Fielder.
But the Tigers know that the story of their season cannot be told without extolling the virtues of Jackson, their pulse at the top of the order and down the middle of the defense.
"Austin's been huge," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "He's been huge all year. This series, it's been a different guy stepping up for each win for us, just finding a way to get it done. And those two in the middle of the lineup, they're our lineup, but everybody else has to contribute, too, and Austin's been probably as big for us as those guys have been."
Jackson came to the Tigers prior to the 2010 season and made an immediate impact that year, batting .293 with 103 runs scored, 10 triples and 27 stolen bases. Last year, Jackson's batting average plummeted to .249, although he still reached double digits in triples (11), home runs (10) and steals (22) while scoring 90 runs.
This year, however, he put it all together. Jackson batted a career-high .300, scored 103 runs, hit a career-high 16 homers, put up a career-best OPS of .856 and set a personal high in RBIs with 66.
And on Thursday, his 2-for-5, two-RBI night did just about everything for the Tigers.
"It felt good to kind of get things started, getting in scoring position for the big guys behind me and score some runs," Jackson said. "That's my job. And that's what I try to do."
His teammates and the Tigers' brass have noticed. Maybe the rest of the baseball world will too, when it comes time to vote for the 2013 Midsummer Classic in New York.
"He's huge for us," Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "He's taken the turn, for me, to being an All-Star-type player. You can see the growth in him. He's an outstanding defensive player. His offense took the turn once again. He's driven in more runs, as you can see. He got a lot of big hits. He's just a real good player and he's going to continue to get better."
Jackson, soft-spoken and humble even while being feted by teammates in the aftermath of an emotional postseason series, said he's looking to continue to make things happen hitting in front of Cabrera, Fielder and the rest of the Tigers.
"It's fun," he said. "It's one of the best jobs you can have, hitting in front of two of the best hitters in the game.
"It's been a tough year for us, and I'm just trying to do my job and go out there and help the team win."