10/02/09 1:00 AM EST
Jackson has postseason start on agenda
Right-hander was left off Rays' rotation last October
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
Depending on whether the Tigers have to pitch 18-game winner Justin Verlander in Sunday's scheduled regular-season finale, Jackson could fall in line to pitch a potential Division Series opener at Yankee Stadium if the Tigers get that far. That would make him the tone-setter in a series where taking a game in the Bronx could mean everything for the Tigers.
For Jackson, it's a role he handled well through so many low-scoring games over the first half of the season to help put the Tigers on top of the American League Central. It would also be a fitting step in his breakout season after the Rays left him out of their postseason rotation last year.
But first, he has to help the Tigers get there.
Jackson has talked about the situation in Tampa Bay before, but not with any particular bitterness. On the whole, last season was a big step forward for the then-25-year-old, who made his big league debut at age 20. His 14 wins in 2008 topped his career total (11) from parts of five previous Major League seasons combined. His 183 1/3 innings were also a career high.
But when the Rays clinched an AL East title and home-field advantage throughout the postseason, they had to whittle down their rotation. Manager Joe Maddon went with third-year starter Andy Sonnanstine, a 13-game winner with a slightly lower ERA and more innings, over Jackson.
Not only was Jackson out of the rotation, he was off the active roster completely for the AL Division Series against the White Sox. He was added for the ALCS against the Red Sox, and made two relief appearances before pitching one game out of the bullpen in the World Series.
He got a taste of the postseason, but not as much as he hoped.
"That was pretty tough," Jackson admitted earlier this year. "But you have to handle things in a professional manner. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and really not show too many emotions ... but it was definitely tough."
That fact was not lost on teammates when Jackson's hot start earned him a spot on the AL All-Star team this summer, pitching again for Maddon, who managed the AL squad.
"This is a guy who didn't make the first-round playoff roster for the Rays," teammate and good friend Curtis Granderson said during an All-Star media session in July. "And now he's an All-Star. He had 14 wins last year and didn't have enough to be in the rotation. And when he does [get to pitch], he pitches lights-out against Boston [in the ALCS]. And now he gets a chance to show, 'I can get you out at the beginning of the game, and I can get you out at the end of the game.'"
To get a second crack at the postseason, however, he needs some combination of two Tigers wins or two Twins losses in the next three days. If he can outduel former NL Cy Young Award-winner Jake Peavy and pitch Detroit past the White Sox, he'll give his team a huge step in that direction.
Jackson's 13-8 record despite a 3.36 ERA must be judged against one other number: His average of 5.68 runs of support for every nine innings as the pitcher of record. His support ranks third-lowest among American League pitchers with at least 200 innings this season, trailing Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez.
To win Friday will require some work of his own beyond Detroit's offense. He struggled for most of September with some mechanical issues and, according to pitching coach Rick Knapp, was tipping his pitches. He rebounded with seven scoreless innings at Cleveland last week, but lost to the White Sox last Sunday after allowing five runs over 7 1/3 innings.
"He was OK," Leyland said of his last start. "His control wasn't real good to start with, but he gave us a chance. He pitched all right, gave us a chance to win."
His issues have generally revolved around hitters jumping his fastballs while he works to try to regain some consistency with his other pitches. It could be a bigger issue going into the postseason against a formidable Yankees offense.
Right now, though, the Tigers arguably need him to be great again. It isn't a must-win situation, but Friday's matchup opposite Peavy doesn't figure to be a high-scoring game. It's the kind of game in which Jackson has stepped up time and again this year.
If given the chance, he could step up again next week on the October stage.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.