ARLINGTON — Following Detroit’s 7-5 loss to the Rangers on Tuesday, Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson sat at his locker in the visitors’ clubhouse.
He checked his phone for messages, which included some good-luck wishes for Wednesday’s series finale.
This week’s series was the first of two this year for the Tigers in Arlington, which is about 40 miles south of Denton, Jackson’s hometown. A trip to Arlington means a trip home for the Ryan graduate — a trip back to Denton to see his family before the Tigers continued their road trip and headed to Florida.
Over time, his ticket requests have dwindled from the mid-20s to about seven or eight. He’s gained experience through three years in the major leagues, maturing while making adjustments.
In his third year, the Denton native has put up All-Star caliber numbers, a validation of sorts for Detroit’s decision to trade for him three years ago.
Prior to Detroit’s Friday game against Tampa Bay, Jackson was fourth in the American League with a .325 batting average, a vast improvement from last year, when he struggled and hit just .249.
Jackson said his timing was off last season because of mechanics. The adjustments he made have proven to be effective.
“Last year, I wasn’t on time,” Jackson said before Wednesday’s game. “It was tough for me to recognize pitches because I wasn’t in a good hitting position. This year, I think making that change, making that adjustment, definitely pushed me on time a lot more and it helps me see the ball a little bit better.”
In 2011, Jackson’s .249 average was a steep drop from his rookie season, when he hit .293 and finished second in voting for the AL Rookie of the Year award behind Texas pitcher Neftali Feliz.
Jackson realized his swing needed some work. Last season, as pitchers finished their throwing motion to home plate, Jackson slowly raised his left knee to his waist before swinging. Jackson said the leg kick was too high and caused him to be late on a lot of fastballs.
Prior to the Tigers’ promotional tour of Michigan last winter, Jackson went to Detroit and worked with hitting coach Lloyd McClendon to quiet the leg kick.
Now, he taps his left foot out and then up from his open batting stance, a change that has boosted his numbers across the board.
Jackson, Detroit’s leadoff hitter, has entered the discussion of making this year’s All-Star Game. As of Monday, Jackson was eighth in voting and had a strong chance of being selected by Rangers manager Ron Washington as a reserve.
Along with the fourth-best batting average in the AL, his on-base percentage of .411 is second in the league behind Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer.
Rangers second baseman and leadoff man Ian Kinsler said Jackson’s fast hands and even faster bat speed are attributes that others envy.
“He’s in a very similar offense that I play with, and you know that if you can get on base in front of those big guys, you’re going to score a bunch of runs and help your team,” Kinsler said. “You can tell he’s a great player, and he’s got a lot of gifts that most people don’t. He’s still young in his career, so he’s still working on things.”
The 25-year-old’s work ethic has been evident since he was drafted in the eighth round of the 2005 first-year player draft by the New York Yankees. Jackson and pitchers Ian Kennedy and Phil Coke were traded to Detroit for Curtis Granderson in December 2009.
Coke recalls Jackson as a nice guy to everybody as soon as he joined the Yankees. Jackson even wanted to learn Spanish so he could communicate better with some of the players. The Tigers reliever credited Jackson’s willingness to work and improve as attributes that have allowed him to excel.
“The job was essentially his, in my mind, just because I know his level and his style of play,” Coke said of Jackson and the starting center field role. “I knew it was only a matter of time before he had the job nailed down. He went out there and proved me right, which is pretty cool.”
When reporters asked Coke what Jackson would do during his rookie year, Coke never told them. He thought his teammate would hit .300, but he wanted Jackson to show them himself.
Jackson was batting .331 this season before he was shelved for 21 games with an abdominal strain. Since his return, his average dropped slightly before returning to the highest it’s been since going on the disabled list.
“He’s picked up right where he left off,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “He’s really done well all year. He’s been a good player all year.”
In three years, Jackson’s numbers have grown tremendously, his Spanish-speaking skills have surpassed Coke’s, and he’s ascended the ranks as one of the game’s better outfielders.
Jackson said he’s not sure if he’s on the verge of reaching “superstardom,” as one of his teammates half-jokingly suggested. But ask Coke and Kinsler, and they’ll say it’s only a matter of time before Jackson is known as one of the best.
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