Jackson sets tone for Tigers: 'Keep battling'

Wins have been hard to come by for the veteran clubhouse leader

September 15th, 2019

DETROIT -- The rain picked up at Comerica Park as took the mound for the top of the fifth inning. When he completed his warmup tosses, third-base umpire Ted Barrett walked over for a quick word, seemingly asking if he could pitch on what was becoming a muddy mound through the near-downpour. Jackson waved him off, saying he was good to go.

It was a fitting snapshot for Jackson’s season at this point. Six days after his 36th birthday, a month after his last win, and 16 years after his Major League debut, he continues to take the mound, looking to help a Tigers team winding down what is now a 104-loss season.

Though Sunday afternoon’s 8-2 loss to the Orioles at Comerica Park widened Detroit’s lead in the race for the first overall pick in next year’s MLB Draft to 4 1/2 games, Jackson isn’t concerned with that. At this stage of his career, he can’t afford to look that far ahead. He’s trying to do what he can to help the young players in the Tigers’ clubhouse right now.

“The guys in the clubhouse are upbeat,” Jackson said. “The staff has been great, dealing with the situation that we have here. It’s just growing pains. Once you learn how to get over the hump and you get through these situations, the future is definitely bright.”

The manager in the visitors’ dugout on Sunday knows all about that. Orioles skipper Brandon Hyde was on the Cubs’ coaching staff for two of Jackson’s three seasons in Chicago, filling innings on a rebuilding club.

“He’s one of my top five teammates I’ve ever been around,” Hyde said before the game. “He’s a total pro and a class act, and there’s a reason why he’s been around so long and people want to have him around and always give him an opportunity, because he’s such a great guy. Takes the ball, never complains, never [makes] an excuse and competes.”

Jackson threw a look into the Orioles’ dugout after his first pitch Sunday, a drag bunt from Jonathan Villar that sent the veteran right-hander racing to cover first base, barely beating Villar to the bag. Hanser Alberto laid down a two-out squeeze bunt a couple of innings later, scoring Dwight Smith Jr. and extending the third inning for Rio Ruiz, who hit a two-run home run to put Baltimore in front for good.

“He saw the third baseman playing back and took advantage of the opportunity,” Jackson said of Alberto’s bunt. “That was a pretty good bunt with two outs. But that’s part of his game. He’s not afraid to bunt. He’s bunted on me before.”

Jackson retired seven in a row after Ruiz’s homer, including the middle of the Orioles’ lineup in order in that rain-soaked fifth. A leadoff single and a walk in the sixth chased Jackson with five runs allowed on seven hits, putting him on the hook for his fifth loss in his last six starts.

“For the most part, I feel like I attacked the hitters and made them put the ball in play,” Jackson said. “Just came out of an unfortunate situation with two pitches down the middle where they made me pay.”

Jackson has yielded 31 earned runs on 43 hits over 24 1/3 innings in the six starts since he won his first two outings with Detroit. He has kept his head up and his mood positive, trying to set the tone for a largely young club around him, especially for the pitching staff. Though he has eaten innings for a team short on pitching, he has arguably had more value in the clubhouse than on the mound over the past month.

“It’s been a battle for him,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said, “and he’ll tell you it’s all about executing pitches. When he executes his pitches, he gets [hitters] out. And when he misfires and gets a pitch up and over the plate in big situations, that’s what has hurt him -- a lot of big situations where he needs to make one more pitch and ends up hanging it, and then they end up banging it.”

Said Jackson: “Some of them have been bad breaks. Some of them have been bad pitching. I had a couple games where the results don’t necessarily reflect how I pitched, and then I’ve had some games where the results do reflect how I pitched. It’s one of those things that comes with the job. At the end of the day, the only thing you can control is when you have the ball in your hand.

“Just keep battling, keep fighting, keep throwing. At the end of the day, you don’t lose confidence. You keep throwing and know things will change.”

Whether these are his final starts in a long and winding career remains to be seen. Despite his surprising success last year in Oakland, he remained a free agent through Spring Training until re-signing with the A’s on a Minor League contract. He never pitched again for Oakland, and was dealt to the pitching-needy Blue Jays a month later. The Tigers picked him up after the Blue Jays released him in late July, bringing him back to the site of his most successful season a decade ago.

Considering how little the Tigers got out of Matt Moore and Tyson Ross -- nine starts combined before season-ending injuries -- it wouldn’t be stunning if the Tigers showed interest in a low-risk Minor League deal to bring Jackson back, at least for depth, maybe for competition, certainly for leadership.

“That experience is invaluable,” catcher Grayson Greiner said. “He’s going to go out there and give it everything’s he got. That’s something a lot of young players can learn from.”

Jackson, of course, has to figure out what he wants to do. But at every turn so far, Jackson wants to pitch.