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Despite Austin Jackson's home run, the Tigers dropped the series opener in Boston Monday.
Boston, MA- For Austin Jackson, Monday’s first inning homer was just another example of how he has grown as a big league hitter.  The leadoff homer was his 11th of the season, one more that he hit all of last year.  Yet, perhaps it was his 2nd at bat of the night that provided more insight into his growth.

Jackson fell behind Clay Buchholz 0-2 but managed to fight back in the at bat to draw a walk.  Jackson is on pace for 17 home runs and 74 RBI in 2012, both career highs, but he is also on pace to strikeout out only 126 times, or 55 fewer than in 2011. 

Not an enormous difference, but progress nonetheless.

His work with Lloyd McClendon in the off season focused around eliminating his leg kick and the results have been tied mostly to the change.  However Jackson’s improved numbers may also be partially due to one other key factor:  experience.

Does having another year of big league experience make a difference?  “I think it does a little bit,” Jackson said.  “Just having more at bats and getting to see a lot of the pitchers a few more times has definitely helped me.”

Jackson has also noticed that pitchers will try to get him out by leaving the strike zone, a strategy that worked last year and resulted in the high strikeout numbers.  “Sometimes I feel like they try to get me to swing at elevated fastballs,” he said.  His improved patience and strike zone awareness has served him well this season.

With Jackson’s high average and more beefy home run numbers, a move lower in the lineup may be in his future.  For this Tigers team though, Jackson likes where he sits in the lineup card.

“I definitely feel comfortable hitting leadoff,” he said.  “I think it’s something I have grown into.  “You never know what the team’s needs will be in the future though, only time will tell.”

For now Jackson’s improvement has helped fuel RBI opportunities for those that hit behind him.  His improved offensive numbers will also serve him well when Gold Glove awards are handed out in the future.

Halfway into his third big league season, Jackson has become one of the American League’s more dynamic players.

 
 
Cleveland, OH-  The Tigers quick strike on the trade market paid little dividends in the first game of the road trip Tuesday night in Cleveland, but it seems clear that Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez with help the Tigers in the second half of 2012.

Infante plugs a hole at second base that has plagued the Tigers from the start of the season.  Tigers second basemen have hit an American League low .202 with just 25 RBI from the position.

“He’s always been a talented player, he’s got a little pop,” said Jim Leyland of Infante.  “He’s a calm player.  Very professional and goes about his business." 

Leyland now has a player that can play the position on a nightly basis and it is one less worry for the skipper as he makes out his lineup card every night.  The move also pushed Ramon Santiago back to the utility role, one that he has flourished in recently.

Infante meanwhile, is happy to be back in the Motor City.  “It’s like coming home,” he said.  “I signed (originally) with Detroit and they gave me my first opportunity.  I remember the fans, my teammates and Jim Leyland.  It’s a family.”

The arrival of Sanchez means Drew Smyly’s immediate future is up in the air.  Sanchez does provide the Tigers with a solid veteran arm for the rotation.  He is also a free agent at the end of the year and his future home will likely be determined by where the money is.  Sanchez earns 8 million dollars and will likely command as much as 12 million per year beginning next season.  The Tigers will have to decide if they will want to pursue him.

Jacob Turner, the Tigers top pitching prospect, was part of the price to land Sanchez.  Already the John Smoltz comparisons are surfacing.   Smoltz was traded by the Tigers to the Braves in 1987 for Doyle Alexander.   Alexander served his purpose, going 9-0 down the stretch and helping the Tigers to the post season that year.

Smoltz went on to win 213 games in 21 years and saved 154 more.  What many fail to realize is that Smoltz was also 4-10 with an ERA near 6.00 at AA Glens Falls at the time of the trade.  He was 11-18 in parts of two minor league seasons with the Tigers.  There was no way of knowing what he would become, just as there is no way of knowing what Turner will become.  The gamble is worth the risk. 

Also, for every Smoltz /Alexander scenario, there many “top prospects” that are dealt that never fulfill the huge promise.  Remember Humberto Sanchez for Gary Sheffield?  Sanchez pitched a grand total of two games in the big leagues. 

How about Andrew Miller as part of the Miguel Cabrera deal?  Miller has found a home in the Red Sox pen, but only after six seasons as a subpar starter.

If Turner becomes an ace in the big leagues, then good for him.  Some believe he can.  The bottom line is that rarely are trades terribly one sided.  You have to give up talent to receive talent. 

The Tigers have a chance to win now and Sanchez and Infante can help them win the Central and hopefully make a deep run in the post season.

 
 
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The Tigers did a lot of celebrating over the weekend.
Detroit, MI –The Tigers three game sweep of the White Sox over the weekend has given the city a measure of the confidence that it once had coming out of spring training.  The Tigers, after all, were supposed to have buried the competition by now.

Yet, a 1 ½ game lead as we approach August seems much larger in the wake of how the Tigers dismantled the White Sox the last three days.  The Tigers are hot, having won 15 of its last 20 games and many in baseball feel that this is where they take control of the division.

The Tigers are rolling and the Sox are headed in the opposite direction.   The last three days have also amplified the difference between the two clubs.  The Tigers simply have a better pitching staff.

It is deeper and more experienced.   While the Tigers are able to roll out Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer, the Sox have counted heavily on Chris Sale and Jake Peavy.

Peavy is on pace to throw 229 innings this year and hasn’t reached 200 innings since 2007.  He is also just two years removed from a radical shoulder surgery.  While Peavy is a bulldog of a competitor, the workload of the second half will be a big challenge.

Sale meanwhile is on pace to throw 200 innings as well.  Coming into the season, he had thrown just over 200 innings total in his previous three years.  How will the slender lefty hold up to the added pressure of a pennant race and the uncharted waters of the additional innings?

Gavin Floyd is coming off the disabled list and John Danks has been hurt for the last two months.  The Tigers rotation looks much healthier and going forward looks much steadier.

The bullpens also offer a contrast.  Gone are the days of the White Sox rolling out Bobby Jenks in the 9th inning to shut down the Tigers.  Chicago’s bullpen has featured as many as five rookies.  The Tigers meanwhile have veterans at the back end that are both accomplished and deeply experienced.

The White Sox though are not likely to fade into the sunset.  GM Kenny Williams has an aggressive reputation when it comes to improving his roster.  He has already traded for Kevin Youkilis and added depth to the bullpen with the addition of Brett Myers.  Youkilis did not have a good series in Detroit, but he has certainly given the Sox offense a jolt.

The Tigers also have a GM that is constantly looking at ways to improve.  Whether or not Dave Dombrowski and his scouts can identify another Doug Fister or Delmon Young this season remains to be seen.

The Tigers took 6 of 7 from the Angels and White Sox on the home stand and it’s becoming clear that they are getting ready to roll through the dog days of the baseball summer.

 
 
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Doug Fister dominated the Angels on Wednesday night.
Detroit, MI -Wednesday night at Comerica Park had a September feel to it in many ways.  The Angels and Tigers may ultimately face each other in the post season and the recently completed four game series may have been a playoff preview.  More than that however, it felt like September because of the way Doug Fister pitched.

Fister toyed with American League hitters in the final month of 2011 with an array of fastballs, cutters, changeups and curve balls.  In September 2011, Fister was 5-0 with a 0.53 ERA.

His 2012 season though has been sabotaged by a strained left side.  Scattered success has been overshadowed by inconsistent performances.  Until his last two starts.

“I think he’s getting to the point where we want him to be, “his skipper Jim Leyland said.  “When he makes quality pitches with that late movement, he gets outs.  He’s getting his strength back.”

There is no doubt that Fister is regaining his dominant form. 

Alex Avila caught Fister’s start in Baltimore the first game after the all star break.  Avila noticed a big difference. 

“You can tell he is getting stronger and has more stamina,” Avila said.  “What you need to realize is that there is a difference between being in shape and being in baseball shape.  He is finishing his pitches much better which indicates he has his arm strength back.  The only way to really get it back is to pitch innings.”

Bullpen sessions don’t really count when it comes to building stamina. 

“There is an adrenalin associated with pitching in a big league game,” Avila said.  “You really can’t simulate it.”

With a brisk, no nonsense pace,  Fister’s strength is keeping the opponent off balance.  He has become a master at handing out a comfortable 0-4.

On Wednesday night, the right hander fanned 10 Angels on his way to eight sparkling innings.  He would have come out for the 9th, but stiffened up after he was hit earlier by a batted ball. 

“We just didn’t want to take any chances,” he said.  “It was a good call.”

In his last two starts, Fister has pitched 15 innings allowing only 5 hits while striking out 18 batters.  September –like numbers.   Fister hopes to make this September as meaningful as the final month of 2011.

Based on the latest results, Tigers fans have a reason to be excited.

 
 
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Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta is hoping for a second half surge.
Detroit, MI-  Sunday’s Tigers win over the Royals not only provided a sweep leading into the break, but hopefully s glimpse into what the club will look like in the second half. 

A five game winning streak pulled the club to within 3 ½ games of first place Chicago in the Central Division and with the second half beginning on Friday, there are several keys to a successful second half as I see it.

Jhonny Peralta, Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch combined to go 7-12 with 4 RBI’s today and that in itself is enough to make us think that the best is yet to come for three important cogs in the offense.  It’s critical for Boesch, Young and Peralta to return to last season’s form. 

Peralta is on pace for 35 fewer RBI’s than in 2011.  Young had 44 RBI’s in the second half last year and another six in the post season, but his first half has been a combination of off-field turmoil and on-field struggles.  Boesch has had a few big games, but has been far too inconsistent.

Yet, recent success has fans hoping the trio has turned the corner.

The second key is the two spot in the lineup.  Quintin Berry has done a terrific job in the two-hole, but the return of Andy Dirks could help fuel the Tigers offense.  Dirks was having a tremendous impact on the numbers that Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera were putting up.  Below is a look at the numbers for the two sluggers with Dirks in and out of the lineup:

With Dirks batting second:                                     With other hitters batting second:

Cabrera:  .344 AVG    .392 OB%                               Cabrera:    .318 AVG      .384 OB%

Fielder:    .365 AVG    .411 OB%                               Fielder:     .273 AVG      .364 OB%

While Dirks is out of the walking boot and his achilles is feeling better, getting him back before August is not a good bet at this point.

The Tigers also need to play better defense.  That is easier said than done.  To an extent, the Tigers are what they are, and what they have been is 10th in the American League in fielding percentage.  The porous defense has led to 46 unearned runs for the Tigers pitching staff, but some of the errors have been the result of a lack of concentration. 

The last week has given the Tigers hope that a second half run is on the horizon.  The first three weeks following the break will be telling.  Detroit will play 29 straight games against teams over .500.