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Tigers starting to click before postseason

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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DETROIT

The ball shot into the wide, left-center gap and didn't stop rolling until it reached October. The fans were screaming, the bases were clearing, and Magglio Ordoñez was arriving at second base, a hero in the middle of it all. Yes, the man who had been booed, benched and dismissed by some of the same people who celebrated him as a postseason hero in 2006. This was perhaps his most important hit for the Tigers since that pennant-clinching home run three autumns ago. This was maybe the biggest at-bat for anyone on the team this year. And this was a very strong hint that baseball observers everywhere — and the New York Yankees — must avoid the temptation to overlook an underdog that now appears destined for October.
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Detroit can clinch the American League Central with a win over Minnesota on Thursday afternoon. The magic number is two, and Ordoñez's recent hitting is a big reason why. He came to the plate Wednesday with the bases loaded and two out in the fifth, and it took only one swing for him to become a hero reborn. Ordoñez throttled Carl Pavano's first pitch, and, for the Tigers, the timing and placement could not have been more perfect. It went for a three-run double and effectively clinched Detroit's 7-2 conquest of the on-the-brink Twins. The radar gun at Comerica Park said the pitch traveled 91 miles per hour. That was significant. For most of the season, Ordoñez wasn't pulverizing — or even pulling — average fastballs from average right-handers. Perhaps that is changing. "Classic Magglio," Lloyd McClendon, the Detroit hitting coach, said of the crucial double. "If you're a baseball fan, you've got to feel good for Magglio Ordoñez. "He's one of the most popular guys in our clubhouse. There's no question about that. You get a chill, just thinking about all the time he's put in. I know it's been very difficult for him at times. To see the joy on his face in that inning was nice." Ordoñez let it be known through a team spokesman that he wouldn't be available for comment after Wednesday's game. That wasn't too surprising. Ordoñez is often genial with the media, but he tends to become more withdrawn when the crowds around his locker grow larger and less familiar. That is the case this week, with members of the national media in Motown to chronicle baseball's Last Race Running. So, for now, we're left to wonder a little about what went wrong earlier this season — and why he's found his stroke at a very opportune time. We know this: The uncertainty surrounding Ordoñez's $18 million contract option for 2010 — which triggered in September, based on plate appearances — lingered for much of the year. And he endured the personal anguish of his wife's cancer surgery earlier in the season. Whether due to causality or coincidence, his bat seems to be revived now that the off-field concerns have faded. McClendon believes the reasons for Ordoñez's earlier struggles — and recent resurgence — were both mental and mechanical. Now, after some subtle adjustments, McClendon believes Ordoñez is "feeling a lot better about himself." It shows. Ordoñez batted .410 in September, by far his highest average in a month this season. "I think he turned the page," said third baseman Brandon Inge, who emerged from his own slump to drive in four runs over the past two games. "Mentally, you get torn down when you have media saying, 'He can't hit anymore. He's probably never going to hit again. Trade him. Release him.' You've got fans saying the same thing. "I don't care who you are. Some of that stuff is hard to block out. As much as you have thick skin, sometimes it weighs on you. I think he finally said, 'You know what? I'm just going to be myself. Whatever happens, happens. I'm just going to take my normal swing and everything else will turn around.'" Look, I know he hasn't homered since Aug. 16. I know five of his eight September RBIs came in the last two days. I'm not going to proclaim that Ordoñez is back to being the All-Star he was not long ago. Before Wednesday, he had driven in the same number of runs (44) as defensive specialist shortstop Adam Everett. But we have known for some time that Ordoñez is capable of getting base hits. Despite the depth of his struggles, the guy is still hitting .299. And in this crucial series against Minnesota, he is proving that he can drive in runs at key points. "A lot has been said about the year he's had," reliever Zach Miner said. "But you look up, he's almost hitting .300. It says a lot about the guy he is." "All of a sudden, he's found some thump," manager Jim Leyland said. "He's driving the ball much better." If Ordoñez can continue doing that, then the Tigers will have a better chance against the favored and near-indestructible Yankees than many of us thought. How can I draw that conclusion? Well, long before Ordoñez put bat to ball in Venezuela, baseball wisemen have said that power pitching, sound defense and timely hitting are the necessary components of a successful October enterprise. The Tigers have possessed the first two attributes since the season began. Now, after some woeful months at the plate, they might be acquiring the third. Detroit won Wednesday's game with three run-scoring hits. Three. That's it. That's what the Tigers needed to move within possibly one day of a postseason berth. On a night when Justin Verlander is on the mound in October, one or two of those gappers might suffice. And that should be enough to send a shiver through the Bronx.
Tagged: Tigers, Twins, Yankees, Brandon Inge, Carl Pavano, Adam Everett, Justin Verlander, Zach Miner

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