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A packed house at Yankee Stadium before Game 3 of the series.
The Tigers trip to New York provided another good early season gauge as to how good the club will be in 2012.  After dropping six of seven to the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners at home, the club hit the road for a short three game trip to the Bronx.  Dropping two of three shows the Tigers still have some work to do.

It was clear the Tigers needed the offense to wake up after the last homestand.  The Delmon Young incident didn't help, but the the Tigers were much improved offensively in the the first two games of the series.  Brad Eldred made good on his first start as a Tiger, chipping in with two hits including a triple in his first at bat.  Yes, Raul Ibanez played the liner into a triple, but who's counting?

Eldred was nearing rock star status in Toledo for his Chris Shelton-like start in April.  Eldred hit 13 homers in 20 games and was hitting .388.  Danny Worth who played with Eldred for much of April in Toledo said he hadn't seen anything like it.  "It was like Prince Fielder in spring training, everyone couldn't wait to see him hit," Worth said.  "Even when he swung and missed, the crowd would ooh and ahh."

Eldred will get a chance to fill the DH role for as long as he hits.

Andy Dirks meanwhile subbed for Young in left field in the second game and took advantage of his opportunity, drilling a three-run homer off Freddy Garcia in the first inning.  The Tigers would go on to win 7-5 as Drew Smyly earned his first big league win. 

Perhaps the biggest development was Austin Jackson's bat in the first two games.  The Tigers center fielder and table-setter showed some life going 5-8 with four runs scored before C.C. Sabathia slowed him down in the finale.

Hitting coach Lloyd McClendon summed it up best when he said, "Getting Jackson on base is important because Boesch will see better pitches."  With Boesch and Jackson clicking, Cabrera and Fielder become better run producers. 

Don't read much into Prince Fielder's lack of power numbers to this point.  The Prince hit just his third homer of the season in the series finale, but Jim Leyland is not worried.  "They are staying away from him" Leyland said.  "He's not hooking those pitches for outs.  He's taking what they are giving him.  He's gotten some huge hits for us, he's not just a power hitter."

The second deck shot he tomahawked against Sabathia was encouraging.

I also had a chance to talk with Jim Kaat who was in town broadcasting the first game for the MLB Network and we chatted about Justin Verlander's evolution.  Kaat was impressed with Justin's ability to learn how to pitch and not just throw it as hard as he can.

"When I have been asked to work with pitchers in spring training, I try to find the guys that throw in the mid 90's and tell them to pitch a couple of innings at 88 MPH," he said  "You learn how to pitch instead of just throwing it by people."

That in a nutshell is what Verlander has done.


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The baseball fields in Central Park come with a view.
 
 
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Brad Eldred hopes to give the Tigers offense a jolt.
New York, NY- On the heels of a 1-6 homestand, the Tigers made plans to jet to New York hoping the road would be friendlier than the last week at home.  A lack of offense, especially in clutch situations, and sub-par performances from the rotation, has left the Tigers looking for answers.  Yes the club is still one game over .500 and yes it is still too early to jump off the nearest ledge, but this team has sky-high expectations and clearly an April shake-up was in order.

Brandon Inge’s time with the club was officially terminated when the club gave him his release following a 5-4 loss to the Mariners on Thursday.  In addition, the club promoted Brad Eldred who slugged his way into the picture with a sizzling month at Toledo.

The tortoise-like start was not Inge’s fault solely.   After a hot two weeks, Austin Jackson has cooled considerably.  Brennan Boesch is hitting only .215.  Prince Fielder has just four extra base hits the entire month and even Miguel Cabrera endured a 0-22 stretch.  The lack of offensive production on the homestand triggered the club’s reaction.

A spark is clearly needed.  Will Eldred provide it?  We’ll find out soon enough.  Jim Leyland said the 32 year-old will get some at bats immediately beginning this weekend in New York, and why not?  Eldred was toying with International League pitching at the time of his call-up.  He slammed 13 home runs with 35 RBI’s and posted a .388 average in just 20 games.

Certainly this April’s eye-popping numbers must represent the best streak of Eldred’s career, right?  Or not.

“I hit 14 home runs in April one year at Double-A,” he said.

Well then, perhaps this is a pattern.

The 6’ 6” 270 pound Eldred uses his size to his advantage.  “That’s one advantage to being a big guy,” he said.  “If you square the ball up, it will go a long way.”

The numbers were too gaudy to ignore.  The Tigers have too much invested in this team to sit by idly and let a slow April melt into a punch less May.   So Eldred gets an opportunity and a message is sent to the rest of the club.  If you can’t get the job done, we’ll look for someone who can.

Jim Leyland always says the big leagues are about production.  Plain and simple.  The sense of urgency though is different with this team.  Having the youthful Mariners walk into Comerica Park and sweep is unacceptable.  The fans are filling the park and underperforming is not an option.

 
 
When Doug Fister went down with an injury in his first start of the season, it left a rather large hole in the middle of the Tigers rotation.  The loss has been felt at times this season, but the emergence of rookie Drew Smyly has helped to cushion the blow dramatically.

Smyly has been terrific in his first three big league starts.  While he doesn't have a win to show for his efforts, the Tigers are 2-1 in his starts. 

"In fairness to the kid, we rushed him," said Jim Leyland.  "He looks like he has a chance to settle into that spot though.  We're very happy with him"

The one trait Smyly has exhibited so far is a steely confidence.  "I think I was born with that," he said.  "I've always been laid back."

Of course, enduring a spring competition with some other very talented pitchers and playing college baseball in the SEC at Arkansas has helped his confidence.  "College helped," he said.  "Playing in front of seven or eight thousand people at Arkansas is a lot for a freshman.  So was the experience of battling talents like Jacob Turner, Adam Wilk and Andy Oliver in spring training.  "Competing against top talent and players with their skill sets can only make you better," he said.

But all of those experiences can only help you so much.  You still have to perform when you get your opportunity.  For Smyly, his first opportunity came against the Tampa Bay Rays.  He promptly loaded the bases in the first inning of his first start with nobody out.  "I thought, 'you've got to be kidding me right now, this isn't the start I was hoping for'," he said.  "I just stepped off the mound and told myself to throw a strike.". Before he knew it, he has worked out of a bases loaded jam and life in the big leagues became a little less stressful.

Fast starts a great and many rookies have enjoyed them. The tough part is maintaining.  "He's going to have to adjust to the league after they see him a few times," Leyland said.

From my vantage point, that should be no problem.  Smyly not only has good poise, but good stuff as well.  Watching him develop might be one of this summer's bright spots.

 
 
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Miguel Cabrera worked hard this spring to improve his skills at third base.
Detroit, MI-It happens every time I fill out my scorecard.  I get to the third spot in the lineup and write down Miguel Cabrera’s name.  Next to his name I write down his position as 1B.  I still haven’t gotten used to the fact that Cabrera is now a third baseman.

Heading into the season, most felt that the Tigers decision to move Cabrera back to third base was a disaster waiting to happen.  Two weeks into the season, it seems like a lot of us overreacted.

Cabrera has not only made the routine play on a consistent basis, but he has made the tough plays as well.  Cabrera has worked hard to make himself a good third baseman.  He heard the whispers in the off-season and heading into spring training.  He knew most people thought the position change wouldn’t work.   He met the challenge head on.  He shed some weight and worked diligently in spring training to improve his skills.

In Cabrera’s final season with the Florida Marlins in 2007, he committed 23 errors at third base.  Infield instructor Rafael Belliard looked at some highlights of Cabrera’s Marlins days and noticed he didn’t have good balance.  His footwork needed some fine tuning.  So, this spring Belliard and Cabrera worked every day to improve his balance.

Beyond the physical aspects of the position, Belliard pounded home another point to his pupil on a daily basis.  “We worked on his concentration,” Belliard said.  “I knew he had good hands, but he likes to talk to the other bench when he’s on the field and I told him you have to concentrate on every pitch.”

So, the affable Cabrera has cut down on the chatter with opponents and ramped up his concentration.  Belliard told him, “You have to show that you are ready on every single pitch.”

To his credit, Cabrera has worked hard.  He doesn’t want to be known as a hitter who plays third, but rather a third baseman who can hit. 

So far it appears that the daily tutorials in Lakeland have paid dividends.

 
 
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Andy Dirks celebrates in the Dominican Republic.
Kansas City, MO- On paper, it didn’t look like Andy Dirks had a shot at starting Tuesday night in Kansas City.  The Royals were pitching lefty Bruce Chen and baseball wisdom dictates that you load your lineup with right-handed batters.

Jim Leyland addressed the media before the game and mentioned that his gut feeling was that lefties would have a better chance against Chen, regardless of what the book says.  Andy Dirks made his skipper look good.

Dirks started the 8th inning with a single off Chen, igniting a two-run inning that turned a strong performance into a loss for the Royals starter.  It should come to no one’s surprise that Dirks got the ball rolling considering the fact that he was hitting .344 against left-handed pitching coming in.  Leyland of course knew that as well.  As he likes to say, “This ain’t my first rodeo.”

Dirks earned a spot with the club this year by tearing it up in spring training.  The beginning of his success however can be traced to his off-season experience playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic the last two seasons.

Dirks has used the opportunity to sharpen his game.  “It was a great experience,” Dirks beamed when I asked him about it over the weekend in Chicago.  “In that league each team carries a 28 man roster (instead of the 25 man roster in the major leagues) so I would see a lot of left-handers,” he said.  “Teams would not be afraid to pull a starter in the third inning to bring in a lefty to face me.  They could afford to do that because they are allowed to change their rosters after every game and they carry three extra players.” 

That allowed Dirks to see a steady flow of left-handed pitching.

Yet, for Americans playing in the Dominican Republic, it doesn’t take long to realize that pressure is a big part of the game there.  Winning is taken very seriously.  Play well and you stay.  Stink it up and you leave.

Dirks downplayed the pressure aspect.  “There is definitely pressure to perform there, but anytime you step on a field, there is pressure to perform whether it’s in the States or the Dominican.”

Experiencing a different culture can be a challenge too, but it’s one that Dirks embraced.  “I don’t speak Spanish, but I can understand some.  The people are very friendly, they treated me well,” he said. 

Of course, delivering the game winning hit, as Dirks did, in the Caribbean Series helps. 

 
 
Adam Wilk talks about his first big league start in Chicago and his college days at Long Beach State.
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Adam Wilk made his first major league start in Chicago on Saturday.
 
 
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Max Scherzer faces the White Sox on Friday afternoon.
Chicago, IL- The Tigers were unable to spoil the White Sox Opening Day festivities on Friday, but they did see some encouraging signs with the rotation’s number two starter despite a 5-2 loss.  Max Scherzer was unable to make it out of the third inning in his first start against Boston, but the right-hander found his groove in the Windy City with a strong showing in his second outing.

Scherzer and pitching coach Jeff Jones delved into the video vault recently and looked at some tape of the 2010 season when Scherzer was pitching well.  You might remember that was the season when the Tigers optioned Max to Toledo for a pair of tune-up starts to get him back on track.  When he returned from the minor leagues at the end of May that year, he was 11-7 with a 2.46 ERA the rest of the season.

If there was ever a stretch to revisit, that was it.  What Jones found in the tape was that Scherzer was more upright in his delivery and his shoulders were square to the plate.  More recently, Scherzer had gotten lower on his back leg instead of remaining tall and upright. 

How does a pitcher fall into those bad habits, especially after having so much success?  Pitching Coach Jeff Jones thinks he has it figured out.

“He became more concerned with guys stealing bases on him,” Jones said.  “He got a little lower on his back leg and that can throw you out of whack.”

Jones noticed he was having trouble lately most pitching from the stretch with men on base, hence the concern with runners stealing on him.

So the new, improved and more upright Max Scherzer took the mound in Chicago Friday and promptly rolled up 11 strikeouts in six innings while allowing three runs.  A marked improvement over his first start.

The outing was encouraging as the Tigers await the return of Doug Fister to the rotation following his stay on the DL.  In the meantime, the Tigers have two rookies in the rotation and quality starts from veterans like Scherzer will help to hold down the fort in the interim.

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Both teams line up for the National Anthem on Opening Day in Chicago.
 
 
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Brennan Boesch drove in four runs Thursday against Tampa Bay.
Detroit, MI –Starting the season with five wins in your first six games is not too shabby.  The Tigers completed their first home stand in stirring fashion Thursday with a 7-2 win over the Rays at Comerica Park.

The win was notable because it featured a couple of clutch two-out hits from Brennan Boesch.  The burly right fielder, fighting off the effects of a tough series against the Red Sox, showed why many feel he is primed for a great year.   Austin Jackson’s quick start has set the table for the big bats in the middle, but with Boesch coming to life, the offense will shift into another gear.

With the Tigers holding a slim 3-2 lead in the 7th inning, Boesch, who tuned 27 Thursday, drilled a two-run single up the middle off hard throwing lefty Jake McGee.  Just another day at the office for the left handed Boesch who has slapped left handed pitching around in his career to the tune of a .318 average.

The idea of bringing a lefty out of the pen to face Boesch these days is about as crooked as Fernando Rodney’s cap.

So why does Boesch handle south paws better than most left handed batters?  “It’s a combination of a few things,” he said.  “First, part of it is, you can either do it or you can’t.  I just try to stay on the ball and hit it to the big part of the field, up the middle.”

Personally, I get the feeling ‘you either can or you can’t’ is the best explanation. 

Boesch says there is more to it though.  He added, “I’ve always been able to see and hit the slider from a lefty.  That’s a pitch they throw a lot to left-handed batters.” 

There is also a matter of heightened discipline.  “I find that I stay more disciplined against lefties and I stay on the ball better,” he said.

Boesch also brought up another point that I never quite considered.  “The other thing is lefties generally don’t seem to have the array of pitches that right-handers do.  There are fewer pitches to worry about and less to think about.”

So if Boesch finds that he is able to remain more disciplined against lefties, what would happen if he took that same discipline to the plate against right-handers? 

“I might hit .400,” he laughed.

 
 
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Austin Jackson's 7th inning homer tied the game.
Detroit, MI –On a 42 degree day in Detroit, the Tigers had the unenviable task of facing Rays rookie Matt Moore.  You know, the left handed phenom who brings it to the plate at 97 MPH?   For most of the day, the Tigers could get very little generated against the talented south paw. 

That was until Austin Jackson took Moore’s 106th and final pitch over the left field wall for a game-tying solo homer in the 7th.  The homer came on a 3-2 pitch and Jackson forced three full counts on the day, frustrating Moore who otherwise flashed the immense talent that makes him one of the game’s top prospects.

Much has been made of Jackson’s new approach this season.  Gone is the leg kick and a new two strike approach has transformed him into a tough out in the season’s first four games.  Jackson got off to a terrific start in the Boston series.  On the surface the 8-14 performance against the Red Sox was impressive, but what was more striking to me was Jackson’s ability to fight off some nasty two-strike pitches against a trio of really good pitchers at the top of the Red Sox rotation.

Jackson seems to be settling into the leadoff role in his third year.  Expect his strikeouts to decline and his walks and quality at bats to increase.  So far this season, Jackson is seeing almost five pitches per plate appearance.  That’s more than any other leadoff hitter in the American League.  Small sample, sure.  But it also illustrates that he is buying into the changes that he and Lloyd McClendon have made to his approach.  The trick is for Jackson to stay with it.  Success makes it easier to stay the course.

Jackson has already scored seven runs in four games this year.  He scored 103 two years ago.  With the lumber he has sitting behind him in the lineup, Jackson should not only eclipse that mark but he has a good chance to lead the league at season’s end.

 
 
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Alex Avila celebrates his game-winner over Boston.
Detroit, MI –Alex Avila looked gassed.  He looked like he needed a day off.  After catching a game that lasted nearly five hours, Avila had one more chore on a sparkling Easter Sunday at Comerica Park:  the post game interview with Fox Sports Detroit.  Such is life when you hit a stunning two-out, two-run, game winning homer in the 11th inning.

Good thing for Avila the Tigers are off tomorrow and Gerald Laird will catch Tuesday against the Rays.  That means two days off for the Tigers catcher. 

Avila took Mark Melancon over the right field wall to cap the Tigers 3-run 11th inning, sending the Red Sox out of town with a three game sweep.  For Avila, it put an end to the longest day of the young season.  “I felt like I was out there all day,” he said. 

Probably because he was.  Avila caught 206 pitches, 80 of which were thrown by starter Max Scherzer in his 2 2/3 innings.  That's a whole lot of squatting.

Let’s be honest, the Tigers should have lost this game.  Twice.   A three-run homer by Miguel Cabrera in the 9th inning tied the game and after the Red Sox again went ahead in the 11th, the scene was set for Avila’s heroics.  Avila described his team’s offense in succinct terms.   “We can blow up at any time.  We feel like we’re always in the game.”

This offense has a chance to be ridiculous.  The scary thing is the club’s two major power brokers, Cabrera and Prince Fielder, don’t necessarily have to hit home runs to contribute.  Each smacked an opposite field single before Avila clobbered a hanging breaking ball from Melancon to send the crowd into a frenzy.

This weekend has left us all wondering just how good this team will be.   Only time will tell, but the weekend was one giant party.