10/03/09 1:30 AM EST
Trying times can't keep Ordonez down
Slugger shining months after personal, baseball struggles
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
Bad pressure is the challenge of stepping to the plate every day and trying to focus, trying not to think of your family, right after your wife underwent surgery for her battle with cancer. It's the challenge of ignoring the boos from your fellow countrymen during the World Baseball Classic, even after getting a base hit, or after your son is shown on television in the dugout having to hear it.
To a lesser degree, it's the challenge of walking into the clubhouse and not wondering whether you'll be back tomorrow, or listening to your agent and your manager trade quotes in the media about your future.
By comparison, the heat of a playoff chase that is going into the final weekend of the regular season ranks as good pressure. Watching the batting average climb toward a chance at a fourth .300 season in five years with the Tigers is also good.
If Ordonez can get those last two feats, if he can ride a .300 season into the playoffs and get a chance to produce more October magic, it'll be a silver lining for what can only be described as a trying year in his life, not just his career.
He hasn't talked about it much, and he has tried to keep his comments on the field. Even then, the sense of relief is evident. With so much weight off his shoulders, Ordonez is peaking at the right time.
"I saved my season," he said, almost with a sigh of relief. "For where I came from, it's big."
Two months ago, Ordonez was in a timeshare role with an average under .260 and an OPS under .700. The countdown of plate appearances needed to guarantee his $18 million contract option was still a big number, and there was open speculation whether he would get there, whether or not he was on the team at season's end.
Team officials said Ordonez's contract situation didn't affect how manager Jim Leyland played him. It was the lack of offense, and for good reason. Still, with all the speculation, it had to be a thought.
His performance since then, and especially his September, has shown more signs of the former batting champion whose sweet bat garnered that contract. And as the Tigers head into their final two games still controlling their own destiny, it's difficult to envision them having gotten this far without him.
Ordonez's .412 (35-for-85) average since Sept. 1 is the best in the American League. His .358 average since the All-Star break ranks in the top three. His ninth-inning single off Scott Linebrink in Friday's 8-0 loss to the White Sox extended his hitting streak to nine games. No other Tigers player has an active streak longer than two.
"It looks like Magglio has heated up in September pretty good, really," Leyland said. "He's hit very well in September and is starting to produce some big runs now. That's huge."
Ordonez didn't win Tigers Player of the Month honors for September because of strong performances from Placido Polanco and Miguel Cabrera that included more run production. But if there was a Comeback Player of the Year honor for first half to second half, Ordonez would at least earn some consideration behind Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.
Ordonez can't remember getting a late-season charge like this. He's usually more consistent over the course of a season, though he had a powerful stretch run to pull out a batting crown over Ichiro Suzuki two years ago.
It wasn't any sort of mechanical overhaul, Ordonez said. A big part of it was simply relaxing again. His family's doing well, his hitting earned him back an everyday role by late August, and his future in Detroit was essentially set for another year once he passed the mark two weeks ago. He has been able to focus now with a clearer mind, and his focus on hitting seems sharp.
He's still mainly an opposite-field hitter, but he's starting to pull the ball again and get more hits to the left side. Moreover, he has been more aggressive lately, running out a pair of doubles on close plays at second that he probably wouldn't have tried earlier in the year.
Even Ordonez surprises himself sometimes. When he hit a double to the right-field corner earlier this week, he initially thought he had fouled it back. Once he finally found the ball, he got a late start and had to scramble to get into second.
"Big," he said.
Ordonez is staging the kind of performance that could make him dangerous in the postseason. To expect another dramatic home run like his walk-off shot in the 2006 AL Championship Series might be asking too much; he still has just seven homers on the season. But if he can duplicate a hit like his two-out, two-run double in the third inning Tuesday night, it could make a difference.
That hit, which helped the Tigers build a lead on the Twins when they needed a win to stay alone atop the division, drew a roar from the crowd at Comerica Park. It was the kind of response he hadn't heard at home in a while.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.