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The view from the booth on Memorial Day in Boston.
Boston, MA- Opportunities often go hand-in-hand with injuries.  When Doug Fister was placed the disabled list Wednesday, it opened the door for another one of the Tigers pitching prospects.  It has been a season of opportunity for a number of pitchers.  The latest, Casey Crosby, will get his shot in Fister’s old spot.

Crosby will debut Friday, but Tigers fans have already gotten a major glimpse of the best the system has to offer.  Drew Smyly has impressed overall this season after winning the fifth spot in the rotation out of spring training.  Poised and talented, the young lefty continues to gain valuable reps at the big league level while holding his own.

Brayan Villarreal struck out five of the six Boston batters he faced on Tuesday and his moving 98 MPH fastball has looked impressive next to a deadly slider.  Pitching Coach Jeff Jones sees some progress after Villarreal returned from the minor leagues.  “He’s like Fernando Rodney,” Jones said.  “It took Fernando five or six trips to the minors to figure out that you need to just throw strikes and not over throw.”

It’s a process according to Jones.  “Most guys learn that you throw at about 95% to achieve maximum control.  They learn in the minor leagues how hard they can throw and still keep it in the strike zone, and Brayan is starting to get that.”

For Crosby, a big league debut against the Yankees will provide an early test.  He was pitching well in Toledo and he will get the first shot to replace Fister.  Crosby was in the mix during spring training for the fifth spot in the rotation, but eventually lost out to Smyly.

The reports are that he has had much better command of his fastball, something that plagued him this spring.  “I think he was over throwing his fastball this spring,” Jones said.  Crosby features a high octane heater and good curveball.  It will be a good matchup, considering the Yankees offense is high octane as well.

 
 
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Quintin Berry sparks the Tigers in Minneapolis on Friday night.
Minneapolis, MN- The Tigers received some good news when they learned that starting center fielder Austin Jackson’s MRI revealed that he is healing from an abdominal strain and no further setbacks are expected.

Jackson pushed his workouts to be ready for a return in Cleveland, but further pain landed him on the DL.  The hope is Jackson will be ready to come off the DL when he is eligible next Friday.  In the meantime the Tigers are cashing in an insurance policy.

Quintin Berry has paid his dues in the minor leagues and now he is paying dividends for the Tigers.  Jackson’s absence has created an opportunity for the career minor leaguer.  Berry was called up from Toledo to give the Tigers a legitimate leadoff hitter and some speed in the lineup.  After nearly 700 games in the minor leagues, the San Diego native is hanging out in a big league clubhouse for the first time in his career.

I didn’t take long for Berry to record his first big league hit.  It’s just that a bunt double is a unique way to do it.  Berry’s first hit in Cleveland will have to take a back seat to his third big league game on Friday in Minneapolis.  The speedy leadoff man had two hits, including a bunt single, a stolen base, an RBI, a walk and a run scored.  Not a bad night, and certainly his best so far in the major leagues.

A three game glimpse into what Berry can provide gave us an intriguing view of what speed is like in a lineup.  It’s a view Tigers fans are not used to.  Since Jim Leyland took over as skipper in 2006, speed has not been plentiful in the Tigers starting nine.  Mashers and run producers?  Yes.  Speed?  No.

The last Tiger to steal at least 40 bases in a season was Alex Sanchez in 2003.  Sanchez didn’t hang around very long, and the club has been built around power ever since. 

However,  Berry’s ability to spray the ball around and pressure the defense with his speed and base stealing ability has been fun to watch.  There is no telling how many bases he could steal in a full big league season because we don’t know if he would hit enough to play every day at this level.

We do know this though; he has a pretty good hitter in his corner.  Growing up in San Diego, the great Tony Gwynn became his mentor and eventually his coach at San Diego State.  Gwynn has given Berry the confidence to believe he can play every day at this level.  All anyone needs is a chance. 

For the next week at least, Quintin will get his.

 
 
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Max Scherzer struck out 15 in his start against the Pirates on Sunday.
Detroit, MI- For as dominant as Justin Verlander was on Friday night at Comerica Park, and a one-hit shutout was awfully impressive, Max Scherzer did something even Verlander has never done.    Scherzer dazzled the Pittsburgh Pirates with a mid to upper 90’s fastball and a changeup that had the Pirates flailing all day long.  All 15 of Scherzer’s strikeouts were swinging.   All 15 of them.

Scherzer threw his changeup to both right-handed batters and lefties with ease and confidence.  He opened the outing by throwing nine pitches in the first inning, all strikes.  We should have known it was going to be a special day.

Scherzer has tantalized us with dominating performances.  His 14 strikeout win over Oakland in 2010 was reminiscent of today’s masterpiece.  He won 15 games for the Tigers in 2011 and his performance in the ALDS against the Yankees showed that he can pitch in pressure situations.

The one word that keeps coming up in conversations about Max is consistency.   Or, more accurately, his lack thereof.  His manager uses the word a lot when describing him.  Scherzer’s skills compare with the best pitchers in the game.  He can dial up to 98 MPH and stifle hitters with a change and slider that are above average.  He just needs to repeat it more often.   If he does, he could threaten to win 20 games one day.

Scherzer has worked a lot with pitching coach Jeff Jones.  After walking seven in his start at New York in late April, Jones noticed that Max was breaking his hands too low in his delivery.   The minor tweak propelled Scherzer to two strong starts against Chicago and Oakland where he struck out nine in each start.  Then the struggles hit again when Max threw 99 pitches in just four innings in Chicago on the last road trip.  Again, consistency eluded him.

Jim Leyland bristles at the notion that the he should consider taking Scherzer out of the rotation to work out his inconsistencies.  “You can’t just go poof and find another guy to replace him,” he said.  “He’s one of our horses.” 

It’s true.  Schrezer has given the Tigers 27 wins the last two years.  He is indeed one of the Tigers horses.  If he finds a way to pitch like he did Sunday more often, he can even be a thoroughbred.

 
 
Chicago, Il-  Despite the Tigers loss to the White Sox on Monday, the offense showed signs of freeing itself from a season-long malaise that has plagued the club all year.  The 13 men left on base ultimately doomed the Tigers, but the 12 hits were encouraging as well as one other stat:  six walks.

The Tigers have showed signs of pressing this season.  A lineup full of high powered bats coupled with through-the-roof expectations may be one of the reasons the offense has sputtered.  Expanding the strike zone has been a problem as the Tigers are not swinging at enough strikes.  Nor are they walking enough.  Detroit entered play on Monday 12th in the American League in walks.

Miguel Cabrera has walked only 10 times this year and three were intentional.  Brennan Boesch and Delmon Young have combined for only ten walks.

Hitting coach Lloyd McClendon knows the Tigers have to change their approach if they want success.  My philosophy is simple,” he said.  “Get a good pitch and take a good swing.  I’ve preached that to everyone from my son to Prince Fielder, to Miguel Cabrera to Brian Giles.”  The lack of walks indicates the Tigers are pressing a bit.  Trying to make something happen has taken its toll on the offensive numbers.   

“We have to remain patient, “McClendon said.  “You win games by working pitch counts and getting the starter out of the game.  Your goal should be to get to the other team’s middle relief every night.”

Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols were the two biggest acquisitions in the off season.  The Angels invested heavily in one of the game’s greatest hitters.  So far he has given them a .196 average and one home run in 34 games.  He has walked only seven times.  Fielder snapped an 0-22 slump with three hits Monday night and while he has not approached the depths of Pujols’ struggles, he too has put extra pressure on himself.

So how much of the struggles these two stars have endured is due to changing leagues?  “On a scale of 1-10, I would say a five,” McClendon said.   “You put so much pressure on yourself to fit in and to contribute that you get away from doing the things that made you successful.”

We all know that Fielder will finish with numbers that reflect his first seven years in the major leagues.  Cabrera will be there at the end of the season as well.  It’s a matter of everyone around them contributing, and it all starts with getting a good pitch and taking a good swing.  Mix in a walk too.

 
 
I told the story during the broadcast today about riding the press elevator with a member of the Oakland media and he asked me what was wrong with Justin Verlander this year.  I was confused when I asked him what he meant.

"His numbers aren't as good this year," he said.

I thought it was a strange statement considering Verlander entered the game with a 3-1 record and a 2.63 ERA in his first seven starts.  Has Verlander's status in the game risen to such heights that a 2.63 ERA stinks?  Apparently.  That's the price you pay when you dominate the league and win a Cy Young and MVP Award is the same season.

Nothing Verlander does these days surprises me.  He had no-hit stuff on Sunday in Oakland and seemed to be toying with a depleted A's lineup.  Only a callus on his pitching thumb could derail him and Verlander came out after 7 innings.  Today's effort ran Verlander's streak of pitching at least six innings to 50 straight starts.  That's the longest such streak by a Tiger since 1918.  You know, when Woodrow Wilson was president.  Let that marinade for a while.

For as dominant as JV has been, April has typically been a slow month.  His career ERA in April is 4.37.  This season though, Verlander came out of the gate much better, posting a 2.41 mark in the first month. 

And if you feel the Verlander has benefited from pitching in a large ballpark like Comerica, we've got that covered too.  Sunday's win over the A's gives him victories in his last 13 straight decisions on the road.

Verlander has a reputation as an extremely hard worker who wants to make sure his game stays on top.  His results make that evident.  A true ace finds a way to get it done when his team needs him the most.  Since the start of 2011, the righty is 18-3 following a Tigers defeat.  After beating the Tigers on Saturday, the A's found out they never had a chance on Sunday.

 
 
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The Tigers got their visit to the Bay Area started with a bang.
Last week at Comerica Park, The Tigers were facing the White Sox and the offense was sputtering.  Jim Leyland decided he needed to try something different.  He turned to Gene Lamont and told him that he was going to make a change in his lineup the next day. 

That change so far has paid some rather large dividends.  Andy Dirks replaced Brennan Boesch  in the two hole and the change has given the Tigers offense a jolt.  Dirks is hitting .500 in May and has an on-base percentage of .533.

Leyland felt that Dirks gave the team a better chance of putting the ball in play more consistently and creating scoring opportunities at the top of the lineup.  He was right.  If you're going to hold the skipper responsible for the struggles, you have to acknowledge when he pushes the right buttons.  His faith in Dirks has been rewarded.

Thursday night Dirks contributed a four-hit game and helped spark the offense with a first inning home run.  He has five straight multiple hit games.  Yet, he is not the only hitter at the top of the order that is hot.  Lead off man Austin Jackson has caught fire as well.  Jackson is hitting .405 this month and has an on base percentage of .425.

For the time being the Jackson/Dirks combo has been fun to watch.   When they get on base, the big boys eat.  If they keep performing like this, they may be hard to separate.
 
 
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The Tigers dropped two of three to Seattle at Safeco Field.
Even though coffee shops dot every corner of downtown Seattle, Jim Leyland didn't require any caffeine to keep him up the last three nights.  The Tigers dropped two of three to the Mariners and lost the season series 5-1 in the process.

We are 30 games into the 2012 season, and the offense remains a mystery.  When the Tigers broke camp this spring, the offense figured to be the least of their worries.  Yet, as we approach mid-May, the Tigers have too many hitters sitting around .200 or below.  Collectively as a group, the lineup has not nearly hit its stride.

"We're swinging at too many balls," Leyland said during the series.  "If you expand the strike zone, the pitcher is not going to throw too many over the plate.  Why would they?"

The numbers seem to back Leyland's claim.  Through May 9th last season, the Tigers walked 121 times as a club.  Through May 9th this season, that number is down to 81.  Moreover, the club scored 162 runs at this point in 2011, compared to 124 this year.

So with a four game series in Oakland starting on Thursday night, perhaps there is some relief in sight.  Bartolo Colon will start the first game for the A's and the Tigers have historically knocked him all over the lot.  Colon gave up seven runs in 11 innings over two appearances against the Tigers last season.  His lifetime ERA vs. Detroit is 5.25.

Sooner or later the Tigers offense has to get it going.  Might as well be now.
 
 
Several years ago I was on the Tigers Winter Caravan and we made a stop in Lansing to visit some reservists who were getting ready to ship out to their assignments.  I was struck by how many were true Tigers fans and how they were sad that they would miss opening Day because of their service obligations.

There had to be away to bring Opening Day to them if they couldn't be at Comerica Park.  So, "Operation Opening Day" was hatched.  It is a DVD of all of the Opening Day coverage from our crew at Fox Sports Detroit.  The DVD is available to all military personnel and all that is needed is a valid military address. 

Tim Bryant, FSD's late Director of Media Relations, titled the project and his help in the process was invaluable.  His work, coupled with the blessing of the Tigers and MLB helped get the project off the ground.

In the meantime, "Operation Opening Day" is in it's fourth season, and I'm proud to say the Tigers are 4-0 in that stretch.  Clearly "Operation Opening Day" is the reason the Tigers have won their last four openers.

The official release and instructions on how military personnel or their families can order a copy can be found on the "Operation Opening Day 2012" page.

To those in the military, thanks for all you do.
 
 
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Tigers catcher Alex Avila has made a quick trip to the top.
From the day he first stepped on to a big league field, Alex Avila has had confidence.  It's a confidence born from growing up in the game. 

His father Al was a front office executive with the Marlins and is now the Tigers Assistant General Manager.  His grandfather Ralph was a long time scout for the Dodgers.  Together they own a wealth of baseball knowledge and because the family business is baseball, Alex has always felt comfortable in a major league clubhouse.

If you hang around enough, you learn without even realizing it. 

"Some of my early memories were with the Marlins," the younger Avila said.  "I would wrestle with Cliff Floyd, throw a football around with Mark Kotsay.  As a kid I didn't really care who won or lost, just being in that situation was great."

Being in that situation taught Avila a lot about how to act in a big league clubhouse. It has also taught him how fortunate he was to have the opportunity.

"I was privileged to grow up in Major League baseball like I did," he said.  "The maturity and the knowledge that I have is someting that I expected out of myself because of the privileges that I had growing up.  I was able to see at an early age what it took to get here and to stay up here.”

A big part of success in the major leagues though is mastering the mental aspect of the baseball grind.  Having two built-in advisers like his dad and grandfather has been a great help.  His dad is seated in a press box suite every night giving him a clean view of his son on the field.  His grandfather meanwhile keeps tabs on Alex and his progress at every turn.

"I still get a lot of advice from them, but they kind of let me do my thing, Avila said.   "They are there to reassure me or give me a pep talk when I need one, but they realize at this point, I know what got me here and what I need to do to stay here."

What got him here is his ability to hit and a keen baseball aptitude that allowed him to learn the catching position while playing college baseball at Alabama.  The transition from playing the hot corner to donning the mask and shin guards turned out to be a great move for Avila.

Once he arrived on the big league scene, it didn’t take long for Avila to make an impression.   He had two hits and an RBI in his debut against the Orioles and then slammed his first big league homer the next day against the Twins Anthony Swarzek.

Two years later at age 24, he was representing the American League as an All Star.

It has been a quick rise to stardom for the kid who used to play summer ball in Ann Arbor and prepped at De La Salle for a time.   It is a rise however that certainly hasn’t taken Ralph and Al Avila by surprise.

 
 
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Victor Martinez is eying a September return.
It's not often you see a player wearing a knee brace, sitting at his locker, sporting an ear to ear grin.  Especially one that deals with the day-to-day realization that he can't help his teammates win games.  Victor Martinez has reason to smile.

The Tigers DH has been sidelined this year following microfracture knee surgery to repair his ACL.  A second surgery was believed to be necessary.  It was reconstructive in nature and was to sideline Martinez for all of 2012.  In early April however, Martinez learned that a second surgery was not needed and a return to the lineup in September suddenly became possible.

Fast forward to Tuesday and Martinez sat at his locker patiently answering questions about his status.  Judging by the aforementioned smile, Martinez is optimistic that he can rejoin his teammates in time to help power a stretch run for the post-season.

"It's a little tough to see your teammates running out there every day and you can't help," he said.

Sitting around and watching games on TV is getting old. 

"You go crazy just watching the games," he said.  "I am keeping my fingers crossed.  I had a 20% chance before, now the doctors are saying I have a good chance of playing in September."

His return to the line-up would give the Tigers another potent bat to sit behind Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.  Imagine that middle of the line-up.  What Victor provided to the club last year was immeasurable.  One of the game's best hitters who came through repeatedly in the clutch.  Martinez hit .360 last September and for the season he hit .394 with runners in scoring position, tops in the American League.

Seeing Martinez return to the Tigers line-up in September would not only raise his spirits but put a smile on the faces of Tigers fans as well.