Five keys for Tigers in League Championship Series against the Rangers

Austin Jackson Detroit Tigers

Austin Jackson struggled at the plate during his second season.

Now that the Detroit Tigers have vanquished the New York Yankees in the opening round of the 2011 MLB playoffs, there’s little time to celebrate. Their next foe, the Texas Rangers, are experienced post-season winners. Here are the five keys to success for the Tigers in the American League Championship Series against the defending AL champs.

1. The Leadoff Man
In a way, Jim Leyland survived his stubborn insistence at keeping Austin Jackson in the leadoff spot. As the pages flew off the calendar, Jackson’s sophomore jinx just kept growing and growing. At each sign of a two-hit game, experts were sure that the center fielder was turning the corner. He never did. At this point in his career, Jackson isn’t an effective leadoff man. He strikes out way too much (351 in two seasons, just 18 less than Joe DiMaggio had in his entire career), walks far too infrequently, and doesn’t hit for a high enough average to offset his impatient flailing at the plate. His on-base percentage was a very unimpressive .317 this season. At this point, he must hit .300 or better to be a decent leadoff man, because he doesn’t draw enough free passes. That isn’t to say that Jackson isn’t a valuable player – his glove in center should earn him Gold Glove consideration this season and into the future. But he’s one of those fast outfielders that old-timers like Leyland insist are leadoff men when they really aren’t. He should have hit 8th or 9th this season, learning to be more patient and make better contact. At the top of the order, Jackson will get five plate appearances per game vs. the Rangers, right in front of the meat of the Tiger lineup. He’ll need to get on base a lot in order to help the Tigers defeat a very powerful Texas lineup.

2. The Old Guard: Inge and Mags
The Rangers roll out three stingy lefties: C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland, and Matt Harrison. That means Leyland will start the right-handed side of his platoon corps – third baseman Brandon Inge and Magglio Ordonez – for much of the series. Mags stepped up in the ALDS against the Yankees, but he and Inge, and Ryan Raburn will all need to have their hitting shoes on in the ALCS, when Detroit may face southpaws five times.

3. Miggy and V-Mart
As these two go, so goes the Detroit offense. In September, when Detroit rolled off a 12-game winning streak to seize control of the AL Central race, Cabrera and Martinez were at their best. The big first baseman batted over .420 for that month, and Martinez hit .360 in September. If they can find that groove against the Rangers lefties, the Tigers could roll right into the World Series.

4. Bullpen Matchups
In the longer series, middle relief is bound to play a bigger role. Often, a reliever may face an opposing batter 2-3 times during the series, in critical spots. The Rangers clubbed 210 homers in 2011, second most in baseball. They have eight players on their playoff roster who hit at least 10 dingers. Nelson Cruz (a Tiger killer), Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli, and Ian Kinsler are all right-handed hitters with long-distance pop in their bats. That means righties Al Alburquerque, Ryan Perry, and Joaquin Benoit will be called on to face those batters when the chips are down. Benoit has been superior over the last four months, but Alburquerque and Perry will need to come through if Detroit hopes to win a tough series.

5. The Iron Arm of Verlander
This season, the Tiger ace became just the second pitcher since 1920 to go at least six innings in every one of his starts. That streak has continued into the playoffs (minus the rain soaked Game One). JV routinely tosses 120 pitches in a game. It wouldn’t be a shock if he had a game where that workload caught up with him. But the Tigers can’t afford that at this stage of the post-season. By chewing up innings, Verlander gives the bullpen a breather, so it’s important he continues that against the Rangers in what could be a long series.

The series starts on Saturday, with Justin Verlander on the mound as Detroit goes for their 11th American League pennant. Watch the games closely to see if these factors are important. Let us know what you think the keys for Tiger success are in the comments below.