LARRY LAGE,AP Sports Writer
DETROIT (AP) — The Tigers have been winning lately — six victories in eight games since Austin Jackson came off the disabled list.
It doesn’t seem a coincidence.
“He kind of gets everything started for us,” said Detroit catcher Alex Avila, who is hoping to get off the DL himself this week and join Jackson in the lineup. “It’s not a surprise to us that he’s that important to our team.”
Jackson is a speedy center fielder who is tough to replace because he covers a lot of ground and helps Detroit’s corner outfielders.
“If you hit in his direction, make sure you hit it far enough to where he can’t catch it — in the shrubs,” Colorado Rockies manager Jim Tracy said.
He’s also a valuable leadoff hitter, getting on base regularly for sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Jackson’s average is up to .323 after hitting .293 as a rookie two years ago and slumping to .249 last year. He already has seven homers — just three from matching his career high from last year.
His numbers are up because his strikeouts are way down. He has struck out 38 times in 44 games after fanning an AL-high 170 times as a rookie and finishing second in the league with 181 in the dubious category.
“The holes aren’t as large as they used to be,” Tracy said. “If you make a mistake, he makes you pay for it.”
Detroit manager Jim Leyland preaches patience with Jackson. He says the 25-year-old player from Denton, Texas, simply needs time to develop.
“He’s still finding himself up here,” Leyland said. “It just takes time.”
Jackson has had to grow up fast, though, playing regularly for the Tigers for a third straight season since they acquired him from the New York Yankees as part of the Curtis Granderson trade.
Last winter, Jackson decided to make an adjustment in the batter’s box. He and hitting coach Lloyd McClendon agreed it was time to lose the high-leg kick at the plate.
“We both wanted to make a change,” Jackson said. “It is helping me be more on time. When I was doing the high-leg kick, I wasn’t consistent with my timing.”
McClendon got to see the new approach before the team’s caravan last winter and during spring training. He believes the altered approach has had “everything” to do with Jackson’s stronger play.
“He’s reaping the benefits of buying into the changes and putting in a lot of work,” McClendon said.
Tigers owner Mike Ilitch put a lot of his money into his quest for a World Series title this year, signing Fielder to a $214 million, nine-year contract to replace injured designated hitter Victor Martinez.
The early returns looked good. Detroit won nine of its first 12 games, with Jackson hitting .333. Then the Tigers went 17-28 in part because Jackson strained abdominal muscles May 16 and wasn’t healthy enough to play until June 9.
The Tigers are suddenly successful again, winning three straight series heading into Tuesday night’s series opener at home against St. Louis.
Jackson is right in the middle of it — leading off with hits, homers and walks and taking away hits in the field.
“I’m just trying to do whatever I can do to contribute to win,” he said. “That’s the main focus.”
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