By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
DETROIT — Austin Jackson’s quickness isn’t only evident in the outfield or on the basepaths. Listen to him dodge a question regarding a choice between two former Cy Young Award winners.
So … you’ve played with both now; who you got: former Detroit teammate Justin Verlander or new Mariners teammate Felix Hernandez?
“They’re two different types of pitchers,” Jackson said. “They’re both good at what they do. That’s tough.”
And that’s all you get.
Jackson is bracing for a tidal crest of emotions this weekend as he returns to Comerica Park for the first time since the Mariners acquired him July 31 from Detroit in a three-team deal that sent Nick Franklin to Tampa Bay.
“It’ll be different,” Jackson admitted, “but, once the game starts, I think it will be business as usual. Just trying to win the game. That’s all I’ll be focusing on.”
That might be easier said than done.
It was here, with the Tigers, that Jackson matured professionally over four-plus seasons into the sort of reliable veteran the Mariners sought at the trade deadline for their postseason push.
“There will be some mixed emotions, I guess,” he said. “I had a chance to play with a majority of those guys for some years. Hopefully, I can use that to my advantage when we play them.”
Jackson is already paying dividends for his new club. The Mariners are 9-3 since he arrived, and his kick-starter presence atop the lineup is a key reason they’ve averaged 4.9 runs in those 12 games — up from 3.8 a game.
“One thing Jackson gives us,” second baseman Robinson Cano said, “is another right-handed hitter. He helps balance our lineup. You can already see it’s making a difference.”
The Mariners (65-55) enter Friday’s series opener trailing Detroit (65-54) by one-half game for the American League’s final wild-card slot. The Tigers trail Kansas City (66-54) by one-half game in the AL Central race.
Jackson has been through this before — another reason the Mariners wanted him — but the Hunt for October is wondrously addictive. That didn’t change with the change in uniforms.
“These guys,” he said, “they’re excited about the possibility of playing in the postseason. When you have some guys who have been there and have had a taste of it, they definitely want to get back.
“Then you have guys who see it’s within reach. That definitely gives them that extra motivation. It gives us all that extra motivation.”
Manager Lloyd McClendon spent the previous eight seasons as a coach in Detroit and helped hone Jackson’s skills — particularly a tendency to strike out at an alarming rate early in his career.
“I think he’s straightened a lot of that out now,” McClendon said, “with knowledge of the league. He’s cut down on his strikeouts every year. I think he’s at a point now where he’s close to being that complete player.”
Jackson said he already feels at home in his new surroundings.
“It was really not that tough of a transition,” he said, “outside of trying to get my stuff packed and get to Baltimore the next day (from Detroit). It was an easy transition, really.
“The guys in the clubhouse … when you see a team that is battling for something, you feed into that, and you want to be a part of that.”
The trip back to Detroit affords Jackson an opportunity to close out his old place, which is located near the Mariners’ hotel — “I mean, literally, right around the corner,” he said — in suburban Birmingham.
There will be other well-known locales, including the spacious Comerica outfield which, Jackson contends, drains power in a far different manner than his new home ballpark.
“The dimensions of Safeco (Field) are a little deceiving,” he said. “If you look at the dimensions, you really don’t see anything that stands out. But I think it plays a lot bigger than it looks.
“Balls really don’t travel as much. That’s how it seems. You have guys with power, obviously, who can drive the ball out of the ballpark. But a lot of balls that are hit in the gaps tend to hang up there a little bit.
“At Comerica, if the ball gets in the gap, it’s possibly a triple out of the gate. That’s a big difference in how you play certain guys. You have to constantly check where you’re positioned.
“Guys with some power, at Comerica, can really drive the ball into the gap. You have to be aware of that.”
Guys like, say, two-time MVP and former teammate Miguel Cabrera?
“Playing him is tough,” Jackson said, “because he’s such a good hitter. He can hit for average and hit for power. Maybe I’ll play a little deeper on him (and try) to take away the extra-base hits.”
One thing Jackson doesn’t hedge about: He wants to put on a good show for his former teammates and former fans in his former town.
“Honestly, you want to play well against anybody…,” he said, “especially against the team you were once with. That’s competitive nature; that’s just the competitive side of athletes.
“They’ve seen me for just as many years as I’ve seen them. It’s kind of a two-way street. It will be interesting to see how they approach it.”