Dirks returns to Tigers lineup, makes presence felt

DETROIT — Andy Dirks had been missing in action during the first month of the season, but the left fielder put a jolt into the Tigers on Monday night.

Dirks got Detroit on the scoreboard with his first homer of the season, a solo shot in the third, then started the game-winning, sixth-inning rally with a perfect bunt single.

The highlight reel hit will be Prince Fielder’s majestic, three-run homer near the flagpole at Comerica Park. But make no mistake about it,  the best thing about the 4-3 win over the Minnesota Twins was Dirks.

He was batting .167, and had scored one run and knocked in one run over the last two weeks. The right knee he banged up running into the outfield wall in Lakeland, Fla., late in spring training was getting worse, even causing him to limp.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland had seen enough of Dirks trying to play through it. Leyland gave him four games off, and Dirks said he felt better each day, with a new strengthening program also paying dividends.

“Being able to fire off your legs helps,” Dirks said. “It makes your swing better … and that’s the best I’ve felt since I ran into the wall in spring training.”

So the dependable .322 hitter of 2012 showed the first signs of doing what he did last year, when he scored 56 runs and knocked in 35 in just 88 games.

“We’ve got to get him going,” Leyland said. “The home run he hit was terrific — don’t get me wrong —  but I really loved the bunt single.”

That was pure baseball: take what you’re given.

Leyland said Dirks saw third baseman Trevor Plouffe playing back, knew Miguel Cabrera and Fielder were coming up, and dropped the bunt.

It was the product of a simple principle preached from the first day of spring training on the back fields at Tiger Town. It worked because Dirks deadened the ball and placed it where catcher Joe Mauer had no play upon picking it up.

“I was trying to get on base for the big guys,” said Dirks, batting No. 2 with Torii Hunter getting the night off. “With nobody out, I’m trying to get on base any way I can.”

Cabrera walked and Fielder crushed the first pitch from Mike Pelfrey to win the game.

“That’s the big boys doing what they do,” Dirks said. “It’s amazing how hard he can hit the ball.”

Championship teams are made up of “big boys” and dependable players who know their roles. Dirks is one of those integral lineup parts a manager can count on.

Leyland pointed out that the success of the bunt was twofold. He said Plouffe will be playing in much closer the next time Dirks leads off an inning, making it easier to get a single through the hole or a double down the line.

All these basic principles of smart play pay off by greatly increasing the odds of success, and Dirks applied another winning principle one pitch earlier. He went back to tag up on a long foul pop up by Cabrera that the Twins could not reach.

Had it been caught, Dirks knew second baseman Brian Dozier was sprinting with his back to second. He could not have gotten anything on the ball, and Dirks would have tagged and been in scoring position.

It was another example of Dirks thinking the game on every pitch.

After all the talk about his bunt, Dirks was asked about his homer halfway up the right-field grandstands.

“My swing’s been feeling a little better in the cage,” said Dirks, who credited hitting coach Lloyd McClendon and assistant hitting coach Toby Harrah for some minor adjustments.

Dirks also said that the “banged up” knee played a role in holding him back, then noted that Monday’s success was only one game.

True. But it was one game in the win column, thanks to Dirks.