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Baseball: ‘All the potential’

Profile image for By Ben Baby / Staff Writer
By Ben Baby / Staff Writer

Ryan grad Jackson stops in Arlington on quest for consistency

ARLINGTON — Each time Detroit Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson went to the plate Tuesday night against the Rangers, there was a consistency to his routine.

The Ryan alum stepped to the plate and quickly tapped the right and left sides of the plate before he turned his bat into a pendulum above his head, waiting for the pitch.

For Jackson, it’s been a season of waiting, a year of trying to find the timing and consistency that’s escaped his five years in the major leagues.

Jackson entered this week’s homecoming series batting .249, matching his career low at the end of the 2011 season.

Following today’s 7:05 p.m. game, Jackson will say goodbye to the 20 or so family members and friends who will go to see him play, and continue the search for consistency.

Despite his struggles over the last couple of weeks, Jackson’s still cracks jokes, does impersonations and spurs laughter in the dugout and clubhouse.

“He still does that, even in the midst of a struggle, a storm,” Detroit outfielder Torii Hunter said. “He stays the same, and he works his way out of it. For us as players, we don’t look at numbers too much.

“We’ll look at it like, if he’s 3-for-15, he’s hit seven balls hard and they got caught. So we don’t see a struggle. We see ‘unlucky.’ For Jackson the last couple of weeks, he’s hitting the ball. He just can’t get any hits.”

After a 2-for-4 performance Tuesday that included a run, a double and a stolen base, Jackson’s average over the last 10 games rose to .231 — after a 2013 season that saw him hit .272.

Last season, Jackson was relieved of his duties in the leadoff spot during Detroit’s run to the American League championship series, where Jackson was one of the team’s best hitters.

This year, the Denton native has had to look at the lineup posted in the clubhouse to see if he’s hitting second or anywhere from No. 5 to 7. On Tuesday, Jackson was batting seventh for the sixth time this season.

When asked about the switch in the lineup, he laughed — something he’s known for in the Tiger clubhouse — then responded.

“I’m just trying to figure it out,” Jackson said, “just like anything else, just like my first year adjusting to hitting leadoff. It’s just an adjustment. It takes time sometimes, and unfortunately, you wouldn’t like for it to take that long. But it happens, but I’m able to make adjustments a little bit quicker than I have been in the past.”

Jackson and the rest of Detroit’s batters have been under the tutelage of Wally Joyner, who took over as hitting coach after Lloyd McClendon was tapped to be the manager of the Seattle Mariners.

Off the field, Jackson has had to adjust to a home he bought in Colleyville in October — a place for his two French bulldogs, English bulldog and Pomeranian to roam around.

Even when Jackson was considered one of the best teenage players in the nation, he was able to deal with adversity better than most kids his age.

The summer before his freshman year, he played with Ryan’s summer team and struck out three times. When the coaching staff asked if Jackson was OK, he shrugged it off as part of the game.

“His intangibles were always the best part about his game — the things you couldn’t see,” Ryan assistant coach Kris Slivocka said.

Jackson, who turned down a basketball scholarship to Georgia Tech when the New York Yankees took him in the eighth round of the 2005 draft, is the only true center fielder the Tigers have on their roster.

Detroit manager Brad Ausmus said that if Jackson gets rolling, it adds to an offense that already has last year’s AL most valuable player, Miguel Cabrera. Ausmus hasn’t sensed a change in his center fielder’s approach over the last few weeks.

“He’s been good,” Ausmus said. “He went through a stretch where he was hitting the ball well and not getting a hit. His average is probably 15 points lower than it could be. I know people love looking at the numbers, but having watched him hit every day, it’s a little bit underinflated based on how he’s swinging the bat.”

Jackson was consistent in his approach Tuesday. In his first at-bat, he fouled off two pitches to the right before he struck out looking. He swung at the first pitch he saw in his next two at-bats, getting a double in the fifth inning and single in the seventh.

He was robbed of his first three-hit performance since June 7 when Texas right fielder Alex Rios snagged a line drive on the run.

Jackson’s parents, Albert and Alice, watched from the stands like they did when he was at Ryan and in the Yankee farm system.

As Jackson’s parents and other family members stood outside the locker room Tuesday, Hunter went through a few of Jackson’s impersonations, including the wide-eyed, expressionless look that spread across the Internet this year after one of Cabrera’s game-winning home runs. Then the nine-time Gold Glove winner and five-time All-Star offered his long-term projection for a teammate mired in a short-term slump.

“For Jackson, I honestly think he’ll be one of the top center fielders in the game,” Hunter said. “He’s just got to keep working, keep doing what he’s got to do. With his athletic ability, he can be one of the top — if not one of the best — in the game.

“He has all the potential in the world. Once he finds it, nobody’s going to be able to stop him. The only person that can stop him is him.”

BEN BABY can be reached at 940-566-6869 and via Twitter at @Ben_Baby.