HOUSTON -- Detroit manager Brad Ausmus spoke with emphasis and hope about Austin Jackson before and after Sunday's game.
Jackson spoke afterward with the class and resiliency that has marked his five years with the Tigers.
But it turns out that Sunday's 6-4 loss to the Astros brought Jackson no closer to heating up at the plate, even though he climbed back into his former leadoff spot.
It was a day when Drew Smyly, who was feeling ill one day earlier, gave up four runs and didn't make it through three innings for the first time as a starter; a day when Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez completed a three-game series in which their one combined hit was a roller to left by Martinez that beat the shift; and a day when the Tigers gave away two runs in a two-run loss -- one when shortstop Eugenio Suarez didn't come up with a throw, and one on a bases-loaded walk.
And it was a day when Jackson struck out to begin the game and end the game (although that final called strike might have been out of the strike zone), and in between he struck out two more times and, the only time he hit a fair ball, he grounded into a rally-aborting double play.
"Try to get him going, where he's been before," Ausmus said before the game about why he put Jackson at leadoff in place of Ian Kinsler, who got a day of rest. "I hope he goes 3-for-4 and I end up having to leave him (at leadoff) and he keeps hitting.
"I firmly believe we need Austin Jackson."
Then Jackson had his first four-strikeout game of the year and fell to .158 with runners in scoring position.
Afterward, Ausmus said he hadn't decided on the lineup for tonight's game against Oakland. Considering it's Anibal Sanchez against Scott Kazmir, and that they staged an epic pitching duel last month, Ausmus probably wants Jackson's defense in centerfield at Comerica Park. So he has to decide on a spot in the batting order for him.
Ausmus, having revived Phil Coke in his first major personnel triumph, now squarely faces for the first time perhaps the toughest judgment call in managing: A hitter can't thaw while sitting on the bench, but a manager can only give a player so many chances before he decreases his playing time.
"He's the one true centerfielder we have," Ausmus said of Jackson. "We have to find some way to get him going. It's not like he's over the hill. Something has to click, and I firmly believe it will. He's a much better player than we've seen."
Jackson is hitting .244 (34 points below his lifetime average entering the season) with three homers and 22 RBIs. Many of his struggles came in the fifth and sixth spots as Ausmus hoped he could be a middle-of-the-order run producer.
As Sunday proved, returning to leadoff won't automatically perk up Jackson. He then spoke as if he has decided he will take the same approach at the plate regardless of where he's hitting in the order. An inference is he tried too hard to be an RBI man when moved this year to an RBI spot.
"Where you're hitting doesn't make too much of a difference when you simplify it as far as 'see the ball and hit it,' " Jackson said. "I think sometimes you feel like you have to do certain things in certain roles. It took me a little while to understand to play your game no matter where you're hitting."
Ausmus hasn't hit Jackson lower than seventh. Jackson soared when Jim Leyland dropped him to eighth during last year's championship series. "Honestly, I didn't feel any different in those games," Jackson said.
Where to bat Jackson, and how often to play him, isn't simple for Ausmus. Jackson might not remain atop the batting order, but he remains atop Ausmus' list of issues.
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