NOAH TRISTER,AP Sports Writer
LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) — When the Detroit Tigers made their run to the AL championship series last year, Brennan Boesch wasn’t able to play.
Instead, Boesch could only watch while the Tigers beat the New York Yankees in the division series and then fell in six games to Texas with a World Series berth on the line. He missed the entire postseason with a right thumb injury that required surgery.
“It’s tough,” the 26-year-old outfielder said. “You can’t necessarily do anything about it. You just try to be as supportive as you can with your team and try to cheerlead them on.”
It’s hard to say how much Detroit’s chances of winning the American League pennant might have improved with Boesch in the lineup, but he’s ready to put his injury behind him and return to a batting order that became even more powerful over the offseason. Boesch is penciled in to hit second for the Tigers, right in front of sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.
“I think I’m a good fit in that spot. I got some experience in the two hole last year and it was a bit of an adjustment, just getting up five times a game,” Boesch said. “With this lineup, I’d hit ninth, I’d hit seventh, I’d lead off, I don’t care. The depth of this lineup is very strong.”
Boesch was a bit of a sensation when he made his debut in 2010, hitting .342 with 12 home runs before the All-Star break. He regressed significantly after that, hitting .163 the rest of the way, but he finished his first year with 14 homers and 67 RBIs.
Last season, Boesch improved his batting average (from .256 to .283) and on-base percentage (from .320 to .341) and hit 16 homers in 115 games. Although his numbers weren’t spectacular for a corner outfielder, he was becoming more consistent.
But he was also battling a nagging thumb injury.
“I was playing with it for quite some time, and it just got to a point where I couldn’t go anymore, so I wasn’t productive and I wasn’t helping myself or the team out,” Boesch said. “At this point it feels great.”
Boesch didn’t have an at-bat after August. He said there was some thought of trying to come back if the Tigers had reached the World Series, but he doesn’t think that would have been realistic.
Boesch started 45 games in right field in 2011 and 54 in left. Manager Jim Leyland would like to let him stick more to right field.
“I think with the type of personality Boesch is — a little bit hyper — I want to settle him in,” Leyland said.
The Tigers beefed up the middle of their order by signing Fielder in the offseason, but it’s important for the hitters at the top to get on base. Leadoff man Austin Jackson will try to improve on his .317 on-base percentage from last year, and it will be Boesch’s job to keep rallies going.
“He’s got some pop in that two hole and I like that,” Leyland said. “That’s kind of the way our lineup sets up.”
The left-handed hitting Boesch may also be able to take advantage of the hole on the right side of the infield when Jackson is on base. Don’t expect much bunting from the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Boesch — but despite his size, he’s not that much of a double play risk, having hit into only 12 in two seasons.
“I like Boesch in that spot, because he’s really not a double play guy,” Leyland said. “He runs good enough that he beats out a lot of double play balls.”
Last year, Boesch needed to show he could be more consistent and establish more of a true performance level after the bizarre extremes of 2010. Now he simply needs to stay healthy and fill an important role for a Detroit team with plenty of stars.
“You try to build off each year, and I felt last year that I was on my way to having a solid year before it got shut down with the injury,” Boesch said. “But you can only judge the time that I was healthy and I’m perfectly OK with how I did. I want to build on it this year.”
Notes: Leyland said 2B Brandon Inge will start the team’s spring training game Saturday against the Atlanta Braves. … Leyland said RHP Doug Fister will start that game on the mound, with RHP Collin Balester, LHP Phil Coke, LHP Daniel Schlereth, RHP David Pauley and RHP Jacob Turner also likely to pitch.
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