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Austin Jackson delivers the game-winning hit in the ninth inning on Thursday against the Boston Red Sox at Comerica Park. Jackson went 3 for 5 with a triple, run and RBI. (AP photo)

Much of the hype and hoopla surrounded Prince Fielder and the Tigers other two big stars in Thursday’s season opener at Comerica Park.

After all Fielder, the $219 million offseason acquisition and son of former Tigers masher Cecil Fielder was making his debut in a town where he spent a good portion of his childhood.

And reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander was back on the mound looking in midseason form.

And Miguel Cabrera was playing his first game at third base since the 2008 season, making his move across the diamond to accommodate Fielder’s arrival. (And he did make an error)

In the end the day belonged to Austin Jackson, the Tigers much maligned leadoff hitter who has been constantly criticized for his numerous strikeouts over his first two professional seasons. It also didn’t help that he took over center field for Curtis Granderson, who put together an MVP-caliber season for the Yankees last year.

After spending the offseason working on his hitting approach (Jackson got rid of his leg kick and shortened his stride to the ball), the center fielder came through with an impressive start to the season. Jackson went 3 for 5 and delivered the game-winning single down the third base line in the ninth inning to score pinch runner Danny Worth and lift the Tigers to a 3-2 win over the Boston Red Sox.

It was the first career walk-off hit for Jackson, who bailed out the Tigers after closer Jose Valverde blew his first save since the 2010 season by giving up two runs in the ninth.

Austin Jackson (right) drove in Danny Worth (29) for the winning run in the ninth inning in Detroit's 3-2 win over the Red Sox on Thursday. (Getty Images)

Jackson used all parts of the field with his hits, singling the first pitch he saw from Boston starter Jon Lester into center field to start the game. He tripled to right field to lead off the eighth inning before scoring on Fielder’s sac fly to put the Tigers ahead 2-0. Then with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth he tucked the winning hit just down the third-base line.

Besides using all fields, Jackson didn’t strike out and displayed a good approach when he had two strikes on him. That is worth noting since Jackson has struck out 351 times over his first two seasons in the majors and his strikeout-rate of 27.1 percent was the fifth worst among qualified hitters in 2011. In the third inning, Jackson got down in the count 0-2 before working it full. After seeing a ball, Jackson fouled off a pitch before getting two straight balls. Jackson ended up flying out to center field. In the fifth he was ahead in the count 3-0 before Lester worked it full. He then flied out right.

While it was just one game, the Jackson performance was an encouraging sign for the Tigers to see. The outing resembled some of the many strong performances from his rookie year, where Jackson’s batting average was above .300 for a vast majority of the season and he finished runner-up in the voting for AL rookie of the year.

Him being a table setter for the four power hitters behind him (Brennan Boesch, Cabrera, Fielder and Delmon Young) will make the Tigers offense that much better. And it could be one of the big keys in helping the Tigers accomplish their goal of bringing a World Series title back to Motown.

And more performances like Thursday’s will make fans forget about that guy that patrolled center field in Comerica Park before him.

The Miami Marlins were the talk of baseball in the early portion of the offseason after making a huge splash on the free agent market in signing shortstop Jose Reyes, closer Heath Bell, starter Mark Buehrle and also acquiring starter Carlos Zambrano in a trade.

Ryan Zimmerman is a cornerstone for a Nationals team that is on the rise. Limited to 101 games because of injury last season, he hit .289 with 21 doubles, 12 home runs and 49 RBIs. (B. Calloway photo)

But quietly, the Washington Nationals look like they are poised to compete and challenge the Marlins and reigning division champion Philadelphia Phillies. The Nationals made a few moves that bolstered their rotation – and pitching alone should give them as good a chance as anyone in the NL East.

Washington finished 80-81 last season – and that was without having their best pitcher for a majority of the season. A full season with phenom Stephen Strasburg, plus the additions of Gio Gonzalez (acquired in a trade with the Athletics) and Edwin Jackson (signed as a free agent) will give the Nationals a solid rotation. Factor in Jordan Zimmerman (8-11, 3.14 ERA in 2011) and Washington has a strong 1-4. Washington also signed Brad Lidge to bolster their bullpen.

Washington also has a strong core of offensive players led by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and first baseman/outfielder Michael Morse, who had a breakout season in 2011 by hitting .303 with 31 home runs and 95 RBIs season. Up and coming players such as shortstop Ian Desmond, second baseman Danny Espinoso, catcher Wilson Ramos and the highly regarded outfielder Bryce Harper could help the Nationals make some noise in a loaded NL East this season.

If Harper does open the season in the bigs, his success will be a key to the Nationals. Also getting more production out of last year’s big free agent signee Jayson Werth (.232, 20 HRs in 2011) will also be important for Washington’s chances.

The Marlins reeled in one of this year's top free agents in shortstop Jose Reyes, who reportedly has agreed to a six-year deal worth $106 million. Reyes, 28, led the NL with a .337 batting average and 16 triples in 2011. (AP photo)

The Philadelphia Phillies have been the class of the NL East of late with five straight division titles.

The Miami Marlins appear set on changing the landscape of the division and becoming a force to be reckoned with for the next several years.

The Marlins, who will move into a new stadium next season, have been the busiest team this offseason with the acquisitions of closer Heath Bell (three-year, $27 million deal) and most recently shortstop Jose Reyes (reportedly to a six-year, $106 million deal). It appears Miami isn’t done spending as it has reportedly offered a 10-year deal to free agent first baseman Albert Pujols and could be in the mix for left-handed starter Mark Buehrle, who first-year Marlins manager Ozzie Gullen coached in Chicago.

Albert Pujols appears to be the next target for the Marlins. Miami has offered the 31-year old All-Star first baseman a 10-year deal according to reports.

Keep in mind that the Marlins already had a shortstop in All-Star Hanley Ramirez, who likely will be forced to shift over to third base. If Ramirez cooperates with a move to third and doesn’t demand a trade, the Marlins shouldn’t have any problems offensively in 2012. Miami also has a talented young outfield duo of Logan Morrison (23 HRs, 72 RBIs in 2011) and Mike Stanton (34 HRs, 87 RBIs in 2011)

The NL East could become the toughest division in baseball with the Marlins spending spree. Division power Philadelphia could be losing Jimmy Rollins at shortstop, but still has a strong rotation anchored by Roy Halladay and has other pieces like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Hunter Pence.

Washington will get its first full season of pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg and has some young talent in catcher Wilson Ramos and shortstop Ian Desmond along with third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and first baseman/outfielder Michael Morse. The Nationals also have some money to spend and have been linked to free agents such as Prince Fielder and Buehrle.

Atlanta, which just missed out on a wild card berth after its late season collapse, also has plenty of pitching with the likes of Tommy Hansen, Mike Minor, Tim Hudson and closer Craig Kimbrel (the 2011 NL rookie of the year) and offensive players like catcher Brian McCann, first baseman Freddie Freeman, second baseman Dan Uggla and outfielder Jason Heyward.

The Marlins spending spree obviously doesn’t guarantee they will be good, but the upgrade in talent will make them a threat in an improved NL East.

ALL THE RIGHT MOVES

The signing of Victor Martinez in the offseason has proven to be a key reason behind the Tigers winning the AL Central this season. (B. Calloway photo)

Dave Dombrowski entered the season with his job on the line.

The  Detroit Tigers general manager was on the final year of his contract and needed to help the team get back to the postseason.

He made several key decisions that helped the Tigers win the AL Central division title – their first division crown since 1987 and first playoff berth since reaching the World Series in 2006. Here is a look at some of the decisions he made that helped get the Tigers back into the postseason.

Signing Victor Martinez in the offseason

This might be one of the single most important decisions Dombrowski made.  The Tigers had several players they could pursue to bolster their lineup with Jayson Werth, Adam Dunn and Carl Crawford also being available. The decision to bring Martinez aboard for four years looks to be the be the best move of the bunch. Dunn, who is in his 1st season in the AL, is hitting .160 with 11 home runs and 42 RBIs for the White Sox. Crawford (.254, 11 HR, 18 SBs) is having a down year with the Red Sox and the same has been the case for Werth  (.232, 20 HR, 58 RBIS) with the Nationals.  Meanwhile Martinez has been a leader on and off the field for the Tigers

The switch-hitting Martinez is batting .324 with 12 home runs and 102 RBIs. He has come up with a number of big hits for the Tigers and made teams pay when they pitched around Miguel Cabrera. With runners on base he is hitting .399 and .390 when they are in scoring position.

Trading for Doug Fister at the trade deadline

Since being acquired from the Mariners in July, Doug Fister is 8-1 in 10 starts for the Tigers. (AP)

The Tigers needed pitching at the deadline to bolster their chances at winning the division. Fister has been the answer. Ubaldo Jimenez was considered to be one of the highly coveted players on the market but the Tiger and Dombrowski were smart to work out a trade with Seattle for Fister instead. Jimenez has struggled with the rival Indians, while Fister has become a top of the line starter for Detroit. In 10 starts since being acquired by the Tigers on July 30, Fister is 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA. He has struck out 54 and walked five over 70 1/3 innings. He and likely AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander have formed a formidable 1-2 combination with a combined 14-0 record and 1.61 ERA since Aug. 16. Fister ranks fourth in the AL with a 2.83 ERA. Jimenez is 4-4 with a 5.10 ERA in 11 starts since the Indians acquired him from the Rockies.

Landing Wilson Betemit, Delmon Young from division rivals

Dombrowski made trades with division rivals during the season to land players that have been important pieces for the Tigers. In July, he acquired Betemit from the Royals. Betemit stepped in for the struggling Brandon Inge at third base. Betemit has hit .281 with four homers and 18 RBIs since joining the Tigers. Young was acquired in August from the Twins and has anchored left field and the No. 3 spot in the Detroit lineup. He has hit .264 with seven homers with 29 RBIs and four doubles in 38 games with the Tigers. Acquiring Young has proved as extra important with the Tigers having lost Brennan Boesch for the season with a thumb injury in August.

Acquiring Jhonny Peralta from Cleveland and re-signing him

Dombrowski acquired Peralta before the trade deadline in 2010, but the decision has made a big impact on this year’s team. Signed to a two-year contract in the offseason to play shortstop, Peralta has been a valuable contributor to the Tigers offense and has played steady defense. Peralta, who has mostly hit in the No. 6 or 7 spots in the lineup, entered Tuesday’s game hitting a career-best .301 with 20 home runs and 84 RBIs. He also has 25 doubles.

Tigers prospect Nick Castellanos, who was the 44th overall pick in the 2010 draft, is hitting .302 with 28 doubles and 60 RBIs at West Michigan this season.

The Tigers made their move to bolster their chances at making the postseason with the acquisition of pitchers Doug Fister and Dave Pauley from Seattle.

With the trade they lost four players, including Double-A third baseman Francisco Martinez, one of two Tigers players that participated in this year’s Futures Games during All-Star weekend in July.

That puts the future focus for the Tigers on 19-year old third baseman Nick Castellanos, rated Detroit’s No. 2 prospect by Baseball America. He is now the heir apparent to take over at third base for Detroit in a couple of seasons. There were questions what the Tigers would do in a few years when both Castellanos and Martinez would be ready for the bigs and if one of the highly touted prospects would be in line for a position switch in order for Detroit to get both of their bats in the lineup. That point becomes now moot with the departure of Martinez.

It still bears watching to see how each of the players performs in the future to see which of the players performs better down the line and if the Tigers made the right decision to keep Castellanos over Martinez.

What’s clear is that the future is bright for Castellanos, who was Detroit’s top selection in the 2010 draft and received a $3 million signing bonus.

Since a rocky first month of the season in which he hit just .194, the Davie, Fla., native has been one of the best offensive players in the Midwest League. Castellanos has anchored the cleanup spot for Low Single-A West Michigan and is batting .302 with 28 doubles, six home runs and 60 RBIs as the season winds down.

He has hit better than .300 in every month since the slow April, including a sizzling month of June in which he hit .375. He is hitting .321 since the Midwest League’s All-Star game.

Defensively, Castellanos is still a work in progress and will continue to get better as he gets more experience playing at third base. Castellanos, who has 20 errors this season – including three in an extra-inning loss last month –  played mostly shortstop prior to this season. He has a strong arm so its only a matter of getting more experience at third and boosting his .904 fielding percentage.

Meanwhile Martinez, who is 20,  was hitting .282 with 14 doubles and seven homers at Double-A Erie and has a .909 fielding percentage. He likely will be ready for a full-time job in the big leagues in 2013. It bears watching which one has the better career in the majors and if the Tigers parted with the right third baseman.

D-Train back on track?

Making strides?: Former Tiger Dontrelle Willis is 2-0 with a 0.53 ERA in three starts at Triple-A Louisville this season. He has walked just five in 17 innings for the Cincinnati Reds top affiliate. (B. Calloway photo)

The past three seasons had been a struggle for Dontrelle Willis.

Since being traded from the Florida Marlins to the Tigers in a deal that involved Miguel Cabrera, Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller in December of 2007, the one-time National League rookie of the year struggled on the mound.

Willis won just three games in the majors from 2008-2010 and had a hard time finding the strike zone. He had 119 walks and 82 strikeouts in 123 1/3 innings in that three-year span. His numbers weren’t too much better in the minors.

After the Tigers traded him to Arizona last year, Willis was sent to the minors and made eight appearances as a reliever where he had a 6.14 ERA and had given up five earned runs in 7 1/3 innings. with five walks and six strikeouts.

Despite the control issues and high ERAs, being a lefty helped Willis land an opportunity with the Cincinnati Reds and he has taken advantage of it so far. Pitching at Triple-A Louisville, Willis has shown better control and is off to a fast start for the Reds top affiliate. He is 2-0 with a 0.53 earned run average in three starts.

More impressive is that he has 15 strikeouts and just five walks in 17 1/3 innings. He also has only allowed 14 hits and the opposition is hitting just .222 against him.

Willis pitched six scoreless innings in his season-opening starter against Toledo (the Tigers farm team) and followed with six shutout innings against Indianapolis (the Pirates farm team). His scoreless streak of 17 innings to open the season ended when Cleveland Indians prospect Chad Huffman hit a solo home run against him Wednesday.

While Willis has not been issuing walks, he threw 62 strikes and 50 balls in Wednesday’s outing against Columbus. He had 56 strikes and 45 balls against Indianapolis and 47 strikes and 23 balls in the win over Toledo. Only 58 percent of his pitches have been strikes and that number could use some improvement, but his early success is an encouragement. This is the best amount of success he has had since his days with the Marlines.

Great birthday: Miguel Cabrera played a key role in Detroit's 8-3 win over the Mariners on Monday at Safeco Field.


The Tigers used another big inning, which was aided by Seattle fielding errors, to open their three-game set with the Mariners with a win. Max Scherzer turned in another quality start for the Tigers and upped his pitching record to 3-0.

Hero: Miguel Cabrera / Brennan Boesch

Cabrera, who was celebrating his 28th birthday, had a key RBI hit on a 3-0 pitch that helped key Detroit’s big inning.

Boesch was also a key component for the Tigers

Key sequence: With the bases loaded, Jhonny Peralta broke the game open with his bases clearing triple

Up next: At Seattle, 10 p.m. Tuesday

Thoughts on game 13 of 162

Coke zero: Tigers starter Phil Coke threw seven scoreless innings to help the Tigers beat the Athletics on Thursday night. (AP)

Behind Phil Coke and Ryan Raburn, the Tigers pushed their winning streak to three with their first shutout of the season. Detroit, which was playing the opening game of a seven-game road trip out west,  is 6-7 and is tied with Tampa Bay for the longest current win streak in the Ameican League. Oakland falls to 6-7.

Hero: Phil Coke

Coke delivered in what arguably was the best start by a Tigers starting pitcher this season. In his second start since converting from a reliever, Coke tossed seven scoreless innings, limiting the Athletics to just three hits while earning his first victory of the season. Coke walked two and struck out two. The back end of the Tiger bullpen finished what he started as Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde combined to not allow a hit while pitching two scoreless innings to seal the win.

Coke’s outing continued a trend of strong pitching by Tigers starters and they will need that to carry over with Rick Porcello tonight.

Key play: The Tigers only had four hits with the biggest being Ryan Raburn’s two-out RBI double in the seventh off reliever Tyson Ross that scored Ramon Santiago to break the scoreless tie.

Santiago also had a key sacrifice fly in the eighth inning that provided the Tigers with an insurance run. Santiago finished 2 for 3, while Casper Wells had the Tigers’ lone other hit.

Conor Jackson had two of Oakland’s three hits.

Slow starts: Victor Martinez went 0 for 5 Thursday and saw his average dip to .200. Austin Jackson was 0 for 4 and is batting 194.

Up next: at Athletics, 10 p.m. tonight

Thoughts on game 11 of 162

Off to a 3-7 start and facing one of the hottest teams in baseball, the Tigers were able to pick up a much needed win. Brad Penny turned in his best outing as a Tiger and Miguel Cabrera knocked in the winning run in the ninth inning to help the Tigers even their three-game series with the Rangers at one apiece. Prior to Tuesday, the Tigers were 0-2 in games decided by two runs or fewer this season.

It's a winner: Miguel Cabrera (right) had the game-winning RBI in Detroit's 5-4 victory over the Rangers on Tuesday. (AP)

Hero: Miguel Cabrera

Cabrera is the Tiger that has been the most consistent at the plate this season. He was the only starting player to get a hit in Monday’s game and he delivered on Tuesday as well. With the bases loaded, he drilled a single to left field that scored Inge and gave the Tigers the win. Cabrera finished 2 for 5 with a double and is batting .385 with 10 RBIs.

Key sequence: The ninth inning when Austin Jackson drew a one-out walk and Ryan Raburn had a two-out walk off of Texas reliever Darren O’Day to load the bases for Cabrera. The Rangers, who intentionally walked Cabrera in the ninth on Monday to bring the go-ahead runner to the plate (Victor Martinez), were forced to pitch to the slugger who delivered.

Penny saver: Brad Penny turned a much-needed strong start for the Tigers. He went 6 2/3 innings and gave up three earned runs and seven hits, walked one and struck out two.  He left the game with a 4-3 lead and in position to get his first win as a Tiger.

Hamilton out: Another possible turning point came in the opening inning when Josh Hamilton was tagged out at home plate while trying to score on a foul fly out that was hit 50 feet from behind the plate. Brandon Inge and catcher Victor Martinez convened to catch the foul. Inge caught it and no one was covering the plate at the time so Hamilton tried to score. Martinez beat Hamilton in the foot race and was tagged out, preventing the Rangers from taking a 2-0 lead. Hamilton also was injured on the play (right shoulder fracture) and it was later discovered the injury-prone reigning AL MVP would miss  six to eight weeks.

Up next: series finale with Rangers, 1 p.m. today

Thoughts on Game 9 of 162

Brandon Inge looks down after his throwing error on Sunday. Inge's error is one of four the Tigers had in Sunday's 9-5 loss to the Royals at Comerica Park. (AP)

The Tigers dropped their third straight series as they dropped the rubber match of a three-game set with the Royals to fall to 3-6. The road doesn’t get any easier either as they welcome in the defending AL champion Texas Rangers for a three-game series. The Rangers are off to 8-1 start this season.

Hero: The Kansas City offense

Every Royal had a hit and seven different players drove in runs to lead the balanced Kansas City attack. The Royals scored run in six of the nine innings and never trailed in the contest. Wilson Betemit led the 15-hit attack by going 4 f0r 4 with two runs scored and an RBI. Michigan native Chris Getz had two RBIs for the Royals.

Not defensive minded: For a good portion of the game, the Tigers had more errors then hits. Their sloppy play in the field provided the Royal offense with a boost that they didn’t need with as many hits as they got off of Detroit pitching. Ryan Raburn had a throwing error in the third inning that allowed Melky Cabrera to move from second to third. He then scored on a groundout. With one out and runners on the corners in the fifth, Brandon Inge had a throwing error to second base on what could’ve been an inning-ending double play ball. That error allow K.C. to push its lead to 5-1. Daniel Schlereth and Rick Porcello also had throwing errors while trying to pick runners off at first.

Key to success?: Many pundits believe that Rick Porcello would be the key to the Tigers fortunes. As a No. 3 starter behind Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, his success would likely determine how well the Tigers do. So far, not so good on that front. While his defense didn’t do him any justice on Sunday, Porcello allowed nine hits, five earned runs and walked three in five innings.

Jhonny on the spot: While Miguel Cabrera has been a big component in the Tigers offense, Jhonny Peralta has quietly gotten off to a great start for the Tigers. His struggles in spring training have been documented. Since the team has traveled north and the games have counted, Peralta has done nothing but hit. He went 3 for 4 on Sunday with a home run and double. He is batting .379 with three doubles and four RBIs out of the seven spot in the lineup.

Up next: Texas, 1 p.m. Monday