KISSIMMEE, FLA — KISSIMMEE, FLA. - The Detroit Tigers' front office tried to low-key how it made speed a noticeable component of the team this off-season. It never made a big deal about how the new, speedy player added versatility to a lineup that had become too close to one-dimensional - too much reliance on power, and nowhere near enough speed.
That lack of speed and flexibility is one reason the Tigers, while making the final four in each of the last three years, haven't won a World Series game in those three years, let alone a World Series championship. When their power went out in last year's championship series against Boston, the Tigers basically were helpless.
So the front office made the team faster. In Wednesday's 6-5 exhibition-opening win against Atlanta, the Tigers immediately showed they have a new way to win a game, and it is called speed.
Rajai Davis, the new and fast leftfielder, stole second base in the fourth inning even as he was being picked off first. He then scored the Tigers' first run on Victor Martinez's single.
The Tigers used speed to key the two-run sixth that turned a one-run deficit into a one-run lead. After Davis singled Ian Kinsler to second, Kinsler flew home on Martinez's none-out single to right. Several players on the Tigers and other teams couldn't have scored on that hit.
Then Davis stole third with none out. In his first Tigers game, Davis had given the Tigers something they had once all of last season: two steals by one player in the same game. (Austin Jackson in April against the Angels.) Davis has averaged more steals in the last five seasons (43) than the Tigers had as a team last year (35).
What happened immediately after Davis' steal of third was startling: Davis scored on a foul ball by Don Kelly to the third baseman. After the third sacker made the catch at the railing not far past the infield, Davis scored easily. When is the last time you saw a Tiger score on a foul pop-up? "He has the ability to force the defense to make a play that would be an easy play on another runner, but not on Rajai Davis," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said.
So the Tigers led, 3-2, after 51/2innings. At that point, in a typical maneuver for early in the exhibition season, the regulars left the game. Chalk this up, then, as a one-run win for the Tigers and their new speed in the major league part of the game. The Tigers pulled out the game for real in the ninth, 6-5.
The increased emphasis on baserunning extends beyond adding Davis and Kinsler. Ausmus has personally overseen baserunning instruction, and in his interview sessions he is now unveiling more details daily about how important he considers baserunning.
"We did some good things on the basepaths," Ausmus said after Wednesday's game, his first big-league affair as a skipper. "Even Victor Martinez was heads-up and went an extra 90 feet twice."
In the second of those instances, Martinez hustled from first to second a few seconds after Davis had stolen third. The Braves might have forgotten about Martinez. Ausmus would like any team to pay when it forgets about any Tigers runners, no matter how unlikely they seem to steal a base.