DETROIT -- The Tigers have had no shortage of hitting at the top of their order since the season started. The guy at the bottom of the order, meanwhile, is quietly swinging away to a hot start.
It does not go overlooked by manager Jim Leyland, who has been seeking production out of the bottom of his lineup for a few years. For that, Omar Infante has been a blessing.
The Tigers ranked 11th out of 14 American League teams last year with a .603 OPS from their ninth hitters. They were seventh in batting average (.231) and on-base percentage (.308). In 2011, their .637 OPS from the ninth spot ranked ninth. They haven't ranked in the top six of the league in OPS from the bottom of the lineup since 2008, when Brandon Inge led a cavalcade of hitters at the bottom of Detroit's order with a collective .670 OPS.
With Infante, the Tigers have a ninth hitter who hasn't posted an OPS lower than .696 since 2007, the last year of his previous stint in Detroit. With Infante, the Tigers have a potential catalyst at the bottom of the order.
Infante entered Thursday's series finale against Toronto 10-for-26 this season -- all of his hits were singles. He has hit safely in every game he's played this season, including two hits on Wednesday, and continued that streak with a perfect bunt single on Thursday.
So far, he only has three runs and four RBIs -- his fourth coming on a sacrifice fly on Thursday. If Infante can keep hitting at a decent rate, even with a slight drop-off, he'll be providing RBI opportunities for Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter as the lineup flips over.
The way Infante hits, Leyland said, he's a natural fit for the bottom of the Tigers' lineup the way the rest of their order lines up.
"Sometimes [pitchers] get through the big guys and take a little sigh of relief, and guys like Omar, they can nail those guys sometimes," Leyland said. "He does that pretty good."
Infante's versatility was on full display in Thursday's 11-1 win. With runners on the corners in the second inning, his sacrifice fly to left not only scored Jhonny Peralta, but allowed Alex Avila to move up to second ahead of Austin Jackson's ensuing bloop single.
With runners on first and second in the fifth inning and a 6-1 Tigers lead, Leyland called on Infante to bunt. His slow roller teased the first-base line for about 45 feet, but never rolled foul, loading the bases and fueling a four-run rally to put the game out of reach.
"I was trying to add on runs," Leyland said. "I thought it was really important with that offense."
Infante's eight straight games with a hit to open the season match Carlos Guillen's streak from 2011. A hit Friday in Oakland would match Brandon Inge's nine-game streak from 2010, currently the longest season-opening hitting streak by a Tiger since 1990.
"Omar Infante's quietly a really good player," Leyland said. "And he can a big hit for you. He's got four RBIs in nine games and they've been big RBIs."
Villarreal still backed by manager
DETROIT -- A day after Brayan Villarreal's seventh-inning meltdown, Tigers manager Jim Leyland didn't have any answers Thursday behind his struggles, though he suspects the weather might have played a part.
It's clear, however, that Leyland is taking Villarreal's success last year -- a 2.63 ERA in 50 appearances -- into consideration when evaluating his rough start.
"His numbers are pretty good up here, so we know he's a lot better than that," Leyland said. "He had a tough day. He had a bad time. Those things happen. But the key is, you obviously give a guy a break when there are conditions like that. That happens. Their guy, [Steve] Delabar, came in and couldn't throw strikes at first.
"The common denominator is that you can't get people out if you don't throw the ball over the plate. Hopefully that was the exception rather than rule, and I think it was. … He's normally pretty capable in those situations."
Villarreal, who's allowed eight earned runs in 1 1/3 innings, was available to pitch on Thursday. At some point, Villarreal is expected to look over video and try to figure out the mechanical issue he suspects is behind the struggles, but it isn't clear whether that has happened yet.
Liner didn't bring back memories for Downs
DETROIT -- Darin Downs nearly lost his life on a line drive back up the middle four years ago as a Minor League pitcher, suffering a fractured skull that left him hospitalized. However, he said Melky Cabrera's drive past his head in the seventh inning on Wednesday didn't leave him his flashbacks.
Simply put, he didn't have time to think about it. All he could do was react to get out of the way.
"It's just pure reaction," Downs said. "Obviously after the fact [you think about it]."
Downs said he has had enough liners go past him the last couple years that it's nothing new.