A-Jax cleans up on Grapefruit League

Two weeks ago, one of the Tigers’ biggest questions was whether Austin Jackson will hit in the Major Leagues. Spring Training might not provide a true answer, but so far, he’s pounding the Grapefruit League.

Nobody in the Florida half of Spring Training has as many base hits so far this spring as Jackson. Granted, he has the advantage of having more at-bats than anyone this spring, having his leadoff most of the spring for the Tigers, but he’s also batting .429. Just as impressive to many, he’s doing it while posting more walks (5) than strikeouts (4).

For someone who struck out a little more at Triple-A last year than one might like from a typical leadoff man (even though he didn’t bat leadoff at Triple-A), he’s consistently having great at-bats, whether or not they end up with him on base.

“The thing I’m most impressed with so far, knock on wood,” manager Jim Leyland said, “is he hasn’t swung at bad balls. He’s laid off some pretty tough pitches. That’s pretty impressive for a youngster. That’s a good sign for him.”

Leyland said several days ago that he felt Jackson was a very good baserunner. It’s that facet of Jackson’s game that made an impression on a lot of people Sunday thanks to two triples and an infield single. He seemed to come out from the get-go with an angle towards some aggressive baserunning, even though he said that wasn’t his motive.

The infield hit was an outstanding example of Jackson using his speed to take advantage of a mistake. A bobble from the shortstop was all the extra time he needed to beat the throw to first. Off to second he went on a wild pitch, and a Magglio Ordonez double allowed him to score easily.

The first of the two triples was the more impressive because of the way he found a different speed when he saw he had a chance. Even if he isn’t considered a speedburner, he was traveling like one around second base.

“I thought that they were going to get it to a lot faster than they did, but I think they were playing in,” Jackson said. “So when I looked up, I was kind of surprised that they hadn’t thrown it in yet, so I kind of kicked it into another gear to make sure I get here.”

Johnny Damon, who was on deck, wasn’t watching it until he heard a commotion from the crowd. Then he saw Jackson flying.

Damon knew Jackson was fast, he said, but he didn’t remember him being that fast. He compared him to Asafa Powell, the Jamaican sprinter who battled fellow countryman Usain Bolt for world titles. Jackson isn’t anywhere near as big as Powell, who’s 6-foot-3, but Damon’s point is that he has a body type for speed and now has the strength for it.

“Austin is put together pretty well,” Damon said. “He’s got more strength now, working out the past couple years to get ready for this chance. He’s just a power runner. I didn’t know what the commotion was. I was just getting ready to go hit. He was flying. He hit every bag in stride.”

Leyland has hinted to Jackson that he wants to see him show off his speed. He’s let Jackson know he’d like to see the kid try to steal a base if he sees a chance.

“That’s part of my game. That’s definitely going to be something that I’m going to have to bring to the table every day,” Jackson said. “I had to battle a little bit at first to get an infield base hit and try to leg it out. After that, I was putting good swings on balls and hit a couple balls in the gap. I had a chance to show my speed a little bit.”

Jackson won’t have a chance to show it Monday, at least not during the game. Leyland said right after Sunday’s game that he won’t play Monday against the Blue Jays. He’ll take batting practice with the team in the morning, hit the back fields to lay down 50 bunts for base hits, then he’s free to head home. Casper Wells will start in center field instead.

Once upon a time, we all thought of Wells as a fallback option if Jackson somehow wasn’t ready. The work Jackson was putting in before most position players reported to camp made that fall seem unlikely, and barring injury, it looks out of the question.

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