With all due respect to ’68 Tiger standout Mickey Stanley, during the past three seasons Tiger fans have been treated to arguably the best centerfield play in franchise history thanks to Austin Jackson whose star continues to rise both as a fielder and hitter.
With his speed and ability to get a great jump on the ball, Jackson has continually provided thrilling outfield plays that regularly end up being featured on ESPN and MLB highlight shows.
This past Saturday Jackson nearly saved Anibal Sanchez’s bid for a no-hitter when in the seventh inning he just missed running down Carlos Santana’s blast off the wall that resulted in a triple.
The play reminded me of Jackson’s greatest catch two years ago when as a rookie he saved what should have been Armando Galarraga’s perfect game.
On the first pitch of the ninth inning, Cleveland’s Mark Grudzielanek hit a towering fly ball into the deepest part of left centerfield at Comerica Park.
With his back to home plate, Jackson sprinted to the outfield wall and made an unbelievable over the shoulder catch that was reminiscent of Willie Mays’ famous play in the 1954 World Series.
Had umpire Jim Joyce not blown the infamous call at first base two batters later, Jackson’s catch may have been considered one of the greatest in baseball history under the circumstances of saving a perfect game.
“Making that catch was an incredible feeling,” Jackson told me recently in an interview for Baseball Digest magazine. “I remember being on deck the inning before and telling myself I feel like I’m going to have to make a catch to keep this thing going. I am most proud of that catch because of the situation and how far I had to run. Just the atmosphere after it happened and the excitement of the crowd was unbelievable. I was so excited but I couldn’t show it.”
Jackson has continued to make brilliant plays.
This past August in a game at Comerica Park against Toronto and the score tied 2-2 in the 10th inning with a runner and second and one out, Jackson came out of nowhere to dive and catch a ball that would have broken the tie. (The Tigers went on to win the game thanks to Alex Avila’s walk-off single.)
The game-saving catch by Jackson was not a rarity, but the fact that he needed to dive to catch the ball was something we have seldom seen.
Hall of Famer Al Kaline, one of the greatest outfielders of all time and a 10-time Gold Glove winner, shared his thoughts with me on Jackson and that play the following day.
“He’s an amazing outfielder,” said Kaline. “You can always tell a great one by the ones who don’t have to dive for balls. Yesterday was one of the first times I remember seeing him having to dive. A lot of players get rave review for diving but sometimes I think they’re trying to get on ESPN. On most plays you shouldn’t have to do that. Austin gets his motor going just a little bit more and he doesn’t have to dive, and that’s what great outfielders are able to do.”
Do yourself a favor and watch the video of Jackson’s unbelievable catch that saved (at the time) Galarraga’s perfect game. As a special treat you will hear three different play-by-play descriptions of the catch.
Simply put, there is not a better center fielder in the game today.