DETROIT -- The Tigers' burning debate entering the season -- of which center fielder among Michael Mahtook, JaCoby Jones and Tyler Collins would emerge as the starter -- seems like a distant memory now.
With Jones and Collins both positioned as mainstays in Triple-A Toledo, having faltered in their MLB auditions, only Mahtook remains. And while other options in center exist, in the forms of Andrew Romine and Alex Presley, Mahtook has encouraged Tigers manager Brad Ausmus to pencil in his name on a regular basis based on good defense and exceptional hitting.
"Not like I saw this coming," Ausmus said before Saturday's 12-11 walk-off win against the Twins, in which Mahtook played a lead role. "I'd like to take credit for it, but I can't. He kind of forced me to play him by the at-bats he was having."
For five straight games, Mahtook has recorded multiple hits. His .255/.281/.427 slash line in 43 games through June has morphed into .350/.414/.545 in 35 games since. This current hot streak is less volatile than the number spike might look, as he's been on base in all but two games since July 15. He epitomizes steadiness, with everything from the walk-up song (Rob $tone's head-bobbing "Chill Bill") he's kept all year to the "one at-bat at a time" mentality he preaches.
On Saturday, Mahtook was in the thick of Detroit's riveting comeback win. He went 3-for-5, just a home run shy of the cycle, with three runs scored -- including the tying run on Justin Upton's walk-off blast.
After a small sample size of so-so platooning in two seasons with Tampa Bay, the team that picked him in the first round of the 2011 MLB Draft, Mahtook is a prime-aged player (27) who is producing with prime-age numbers.
It's far too early to put this year for Mahtook, who is now batting .305, into any context other than a potential breakout season. He doesn't want to blow it out of proportion, either.
"Obviously I do feel good, I'm seeing the pitches well, but more than that I'm staying within my approach," Mahtook said. "I'm not trying to hit the home run, I'm not trying to pull the ball, I'm not trying to do anything specific. I'm just staying within my approach, and I'm just kind of letting the game come to it."
Ausmus approached the topic of his center fielder's success with similar caution, noting that one good year doesn't guarantee long-term results. Instead, a handful of productive seasons are required in order for a player to prove himself and be given more leeway in the event of a significant slump.
Mahtook's method appears to be diverting his mind's focus from the hot streak. The best thing for him and the Tigers to do is keep it that way.
"I'm not necessarily going up to the plate thinking, 'Oh, I'm locked in. I'm hot,'" Mahtook said. "I'm just going up to the plate thinking, 'Stay with this approach and battle it out,' and it's been working for me."