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Austin Jackson delivers the game-winning hit in the ninth inning on Thursday against the Boston Red Sox at Comerica Park. Jackson went 3 for 5 with a triple, run and RBI. (AP photo)

Much of the hype and hoopla surrounded Prince Fielder and the Tigers other two big stars in Thursday’s season opener at Comerica Park.

After all Fielder, the $219 million offseason acquisition and son of former Tigers masher Cecil Fielder was making his debut in a town where he spent a good portion of his childhood.

And reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander was back on the mound looking in midseason form.

And Miguel Cabrera was playing his first game at third base since the 2008 season, making his move across the diamond to accommodate Fielder’s arrival. (And he did make an error)

In the end the day belonged to Austin Jackson, the Tigers much maligned leadoff hitter who has been constantly criticized for his numerous strikeouts over his first two professional seasons. It also didn’t help that he took over center field for Curtis Granderson, who put together an MVP-caliber season for the Yankees last year.

After spending the offseason working on his hitting approach (Jackson got rid of his leg kick and shortened his stride to the ball), the center fielder came through with an impressive start to the season. Jackson went 3 for 5 and delivered the game-winning single down the third base line in the ninth inning to score pinch runner Danny Worth and lift the Tigers to a 3-2 win over the Boston Red Sox.

It was the first career walk-off hit for Jackson, who bailed out the Tigers after closer Jose Valverde blew his first save since the 2010 season by giving up two runs in the ninth.

Austin Jackson (right) drove in Danny Worth (29) for the winning run in the ninth inning in Detroit's 3-2 win over the Red Sox on Thursday. (Getty Images)

Jackson used all parts of the field with his hits, singling the first pitch he saw from Boston starter Jon Lester into center field to start the game. He tripled to right field to lead off the eighth inning before scoring on Fielder’s sac fly to put the Tigers ahead 2-0. Then with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth he tucked the winning hit just down the third-base line.

Besides using all fields, Jackson didn’t strike out and displayed a good approach when he had two strikes on him. That is worth noting since Jackson has struck out 351 times over his first two seasons in the majors and his strikeout-rate of 27.1 percent was the fifth worst among qualified hitters in 2011. In the third inning, Jackson got down in the count 0-2 before working it full. After seeing a ball, Jackson fouled off a pitch before getting two straight balls. Jackson ended up flying out to center field. In the fifth he was ahead in the count 3-0 before Lester worked it full. He then flied out right.

While it was just one game, the Jackson performance was an encouraging sign for the Tigers to see. The outing resembled some of the many strong performances from his rookie year, where Jackson’s batting average was above .300 for a vast majority of the season and he finished runner-up in the voting for AL rookie of the year.

Him being a table setter for the four power hitters behind him (Brennan Boesch, Cabrera, Fielder and Delmon Young) will make the Tigers offense that much better. And it could be one of the big keys in helping the Tigers accomplish their goal of bringing a World Series title back to Motown.

And more performances like Thursday’s will make fans forget about that guy that patrolled center field in Comerica Park before him.

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Second-year player Greg Monroe (right) is nearly averaging a double-double for the Pistons this season and is a cornerstone for the future. He has helped the Pistons win seven of their last nine games. (AP)

When February began, the Pistons were struggling with a 4-19 record,had the league’s second-worst record and appeared to have a high probability of landing one of the top five picks in the upcoming NBA draft.

The past few weeks have shifted the Pistons’ outlook completely. With a 7-3 record this month and seven wins and the last nine games, the suddenly surging Pistons are 11-22 and suddenly find themselves five games behind eighth seed Boston for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Pistons have benefited from a favorable schedule this month to get on a bit of a roll, beating other struggling teams. Detroit, which is 8-10 against teams below .500, has beaten the Nets (10-24) twice and New Orleans (7-24) and Sacramento (10-21) during their February surge. They also own two wins over a Celtics team that is struggling with injuries. On the contrary they did nearly beat a red-hot Spurs team that has won 11 straight. But they also did lose to the Wizards (7-25) at home during their surge.

While it is a good sign that the Pistons are finding ways to win with young players Brandon Knight and Greg Monroe playing big roles, is it really in the best interest for the future of the  franchise to continue to win games? Currently the Pistons have the seventh-worst record in the NBA, but are within three games of becoming more of a middle of the pack NBA team.

Even if the Pistons were to sneak into one of the last playoff spots, is it really worth it to go against the far superior Bulls or Heat and see an early exit?

The case for lottery balls

In a league where star players now seem focused on playing in big markets with other stars by their sides (i.e. LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh on the Heat), it seems like the best way to stockpile talent is the draft. Detroit isn’t a city where elite free agents rush to play, so in that case it would be of the best interest for the Pistons to accumulate as many lottery balls as possible to ideally gain a top-five selection.

Plus there likely will be a talented group of players declaring for the draft this season, especially since no labor issues loom for the NBA this offseason like they did last year. A player like Kentucky freshman center Anthony Davis could be an appealing lottery choice for the Pistons if he were to declare for the draft. The Pistons need size and could pair him along side Monroe. Ohio State sophomore big man JJ Sullinger and North Carolina big men John Henson or Tyler Zeller are among other possibilities.

Lottery picks Kevin Durant (pictured) and Russell Westbrook are the highest scoring duo in the NBA and have helped the Thunder own the NBA's best record at 25-7 this season. (AP).

Oklahoma City used the draft to become a strong force in the Western Conference. Kevin Durant sand Russell Westbrook were each top-four draft picks that have become stars for the Thunder and helped them reach the Western Conference finals last season. Durant, a former scoring champion, is third in the league in scoring (27.7 ppg) and Westbrook (23.4 ppg) is fifth for the the Thunder, who are tied with Miami for the league’s best record. The Pistons could have a combo like that with Monroe and Knight.

The Hawks have also capitalized on draft picks. Lottery picks Al Horford and Marvin Williams and mid-first round pick Josh Smith have helped the Hawks compete in the East the last few seasons.

Dumars won without draft

On the flip side, when the Pistons became one of the top teams in the NBA in the 2000s and won the NBA title in 2004, it wasn’t the draft that made their team. GM Joe Dumars acquired most of the key players  that helped Detroit reach back-to-back NBA Finals (04-05) and six straight Eastern Conference finals (03-08) via trades.

Rip Hamilton was acquired in a trade with the Wizards,  Ben Wallace in a trade with the Magic, Corliss Williamson in a trade with the Raptors,  Rasheed Wallace and Mike James in a three-team trade with the Hawks and Celtics and Lindsey Hunter (a former Pistons draft pick) in a trade with the Raptors.

Chauncey Billups, who at that time had bounced around with several teams and was no star, signed with the Pistons as a free agent in 2002. The only main contributors Dumars drafted were Tayshaun Prince (first round pick, 23rd overall selection in 2002) and Mehmet Okur (second round pick, 37th overall selection in 2001). And yes, Darko was a member of the team but wasn’t a major contributor.

So Dumars has built a dominant NBA team without utilizing high draft picks in the past so maybe winning more games and making a run at the final playoff spot could be beneficial to the Pistons. More wins and a young base of talent could make Detroit a more attractive destination for solid free agents.

Besides there are no guarantees lottery picks will definitely be productive NBA players (i.e. the injury prone Greg Oden and Darko). But Dumars has found productivity with his lottery selections over the past two seasons with Monroe and Knight and even with second round pick Jonas Jerebko, who appear to be cornerstones for the franchise. Monroe is averaging a team-best 16.2 points and 9.7 rebounds, Knight has made 28 starts and is averaging 12.4 points and 3.5 assists and Jerebko is averaging 9.8 points off the bench.

With the season at its halfway point and 33 games remaining, it will be interesting to see what direction the Pistons head. But it seems that the best thing for the future would be to strike gold on another lottery pick.

Trey Burke, a candidate for Big Ten freshman of the year, has a been a big reason why Michigan has a chance to win its first Big Ten title in 26 years. The freshman is averaging a team-leading 15.3 points during Big Ten play for Michigan, which is a game behind league leader MSU with four to play. (AP)

Two weeks remain in the regular season and the Michigan basketball team is firmly in the hunt for its first Big Ten title since 1986.

With four games remaining, three of them which are on the road including an 8 p.m. game against Northwestern tonight, the No. 11-ranked Wolverines are a game behind rival Michigan State and tied with Ohio State for second.

Saturday’s home win over the Buckeyes set the stage for the furious finish to the Big Ten season. With the most favorable of schedules of the Big Ten contenders, Michigan will likely need to win out to end a 26-year league title drought.

The fact that Michigan is in the mix for a title has been impressive. Despite the fact that key players Tim Hardaway Jr. and Evan Smotrycz have been in shooting slumps the vast majority of the Big Ten season, the Wolverines have found ways to pull out games and have protected their home court this season. They grinded out one-point wins at home against MSU and on the road against Purdue and outlasted Northwestern in overtime last month.

Freshman Trey Burke has also been a big boost, making up for the loss of Darius Morris to the NBA. The point guard has been the Big Ten’s freshman of the week five times and has been clutch in helping Michigan having a chance to play for a title. Burke is U-M’s leading scorer in Big Ten play at 15.3 points per game and also averaging 4.5 assists.

Over the past two games, Tim Hardaway Jr. has made 9 of 14 shots for the Wolverines.

With their only conference road wins coming at Purdue and at Nebraska, U-M will have to find a way to win away from the Crisler Center in order to capture the title. The margin for error is small and they likely will need to win out to have any chance at a possible crown. While the closing schedule is favorable, it features teams still playing for postseason position. Northwestern still has a chance at a NCAA bid as does Purdue, who the Wolverines host on Saturday. Michigan closes the season with road games at Illinois and Penn State.

What could be the most encouraging sign for Michigan’s chances is that Hardaway Jr. is starting to heat up. The sophomore, who is shooting 38.4 percent in conference play, was 4 of 5 from the field and 2 of 2 from 3-point range in Saturday’s win over Ohio State. In his last two games, he’s averaging 14 points and shooting 64 percent from the field (9 of 14) and 80 percent on 3s (4 of 5). The Wolverines have often gone as Hardaway goes and a strong close to the season by their star could vault Michigan to its first championship in nearly three decades.

The Miami Marlins were the talk of baseball in the early portion of the offseason after making a huge splash on the free agent market in signing shortstop Jose Reyes, closer Heath Bell, starter Mark Buehrle and also acquiring starter Carlos Zambrano in a trade.

Ryan Zimmerman is a cornerstone for a Nationals team that is on the rise. Limited to 101 games because of injury last season, he hit .289 with 21 doubles, 12 home runs and 49 RBIs. (B. Calloway photo)

But quietly, the Washington Nationals look like they are poised to compete and challenge the Marlins and reigning division champion Philadelphia Phillies.

The Nationals made a few moves that bolstered their rotation – and pitching alone should give them as good a chance as anyone in the NL East. Washington finished 80-81 last season – and that was without having their best pitcher for a majority of the season.

A full season with phenom Stephen Strasburg, plus the additions of Gio Gonzalez (acquired in a trade with the Athletics) and Edwin Jackson (signed as a free agent) will give the Nationals a solid rotation. Factor in Jordan Zimmerman (8-11, 3.14 ERA in 2011) and Washington has a strong 1-4. Washington also signed Brad Lidge to bolster their bullpen.

Washington also has a strong core of offensive players led by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and first baseman/outfielder Michael Morse, who had a breakout season in 2011 by hitting .303 with 31 home runs and 95 RBIs season. Up and coming players such as shortstop Ian Desmond, second baseman Danny Espinoso, catcher Wilson Ramos and the highly regarded outfielder Bryce Harper could help the Nationals make some noise in a loaded NL East this season.

If Harper does open the season in the bigs, his success will be a key to the Nationals. Also getting more production out of last year’s big free agent signee Jayson Werth (.232, 20 HRs in 2011) will also be important for Washington’s chances.

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After plying in just 13 games over his first two seasons, Matthew Stafford is tied for third in the NFL with 36 touchdown passes, ranks fifth in passing yards (4,518) and is sixth in quarterback rating (96.6) this season. (AP)

The sight of Matthew Stafford wearing a baseball cap on the sidelines was common for much of the past two seasons.

That has been anything but the case this year as the former No. 1 overall pick has provided an indication of just why the Lions choose to make him their franchise quarterback.

After playing in just 13 games over his first two seasons due to an assortment of injuries, Stafford has started all 15 games this season. His presence has helped the Lions transition from their losing ways and has them in the postseason for the first time since 1999.

At 23, Stafford has had one of the best – if not the best – seasons by a Lions quarterback ever. This year, he has thrown for a franchise single-season record of 4,518 yards (he surpassed Scott Mitchell’s total of 4,338 from the 1995 season in Saturday’s win over San Diego). Stafford’s 36 touchdowns this year also are a single-season franchise record. He even has a 63.7 completion percentage, which also is one of the best marks for a Lions quarterback that has started 75 percent of the team’s games.

Matthew Stafford has helped the Lions to a 10-5 record this season and their first playoff appearance since 1999. (AP)

Even more impressive is that Stafford has put up numbers without a reliable running game this season. With Jahvid Best’s concussion issues, the Lions haven’t really had a go-to back and have been forced to air it out in a majority of their games. The offensive line has come up big in pass pro to help Stafford. It also helps when Stafford can throw to one of the best receivers in the league in Calvin Johnson.

It’s been far beyond the stats. Stafford has helped Detroit overcome big deficits in four of its wins this season. His most impressive drive may have been the 98-yard march down the field for a game-winning touchdown toss to Johnson in Oakland. There also were the rallies in wins against Dallas and Minnesota, too.

The way Stafford has played this season and what he has meant to the Lions turnaround should give him a good case to be on the NFC roster in the Pro Bowl behind Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and New Orleans’ Drew Brees (who broke Dan Marino’s single-season NFL passing record in Monday’s win over Atlanta).. Behind those two, what quarterback has really been better?

And it appears that Stafford should only get even better for the Lions.

After Stafford only managed to play in three games in 2010, the talk was could he stay healthy? Should the Lions have taken one of the other quarterbacks in the 2009 draft such as Mark Sanchez? Or should the Lions think about getting another quarterback since Stafford couldn’t stay healthy.

Stafford has more than answered the bell this season and proven that the Lions made the right choice in finding their franchise quarterback.

Gio Gonzalez would be a good fit at the Tigers, but only at the right price. The left-hander ranked ninth in the AL in strikeouts and 10th in ERA in 2011. (Google image)

The Oakland A’s are willing to part with Gio Gonzalez, and the Tigers have been rumored to be one of the teams interested in acquiring the 26-year old left-handed pitcher.

Gonzalez would no doubt be a good acquisition for the Tigers. He would give them a much-needed lefty for their rotation and would also address their need for a fifth starter. Gonzalez has had a strong past couple of seasons for the Athletics. He ranked 16-12 and ranked ninth in the American League with 197 strikeouts and 10th with a 3.12 ERA and was an All-Star last season. Gonzalez was better pitcher at home last season with an ERA that was almost a run better at the Oakland Coliseum than on the road. Still he has a 38-32 career record and a 3.93 ERA in four seasons.

Nick Castellanos appears to be the long-term solution for the Tigers at third base and Detroit shouldn't include him in a deal to acquire Gio Gonzalez. (B. Calloway photo)

Oakland will definitely require a good package in dealing Gonzalez, and it is rumored the Tigers would have to part with top prospects right-handed pitcher Jacob Turner and  third baseman Nick Castellanos and a few other pieces to acquire him. If the Tigers could entice  the Athletics without including Castellanos would and should be the only way they make such a deal.

After trading third baseman Francisco Martinez, who appeared in the 2011 Futures Game, to Seattle in the deal that landed Doug Fister, the Tigers pretty much determined Castellanos would be their guy at third base when he was ready – which could be sometime in 2013 or 14. Third base is a current position of need for the Tigers and the 19-year old Castellanos seems as if he could be a long-term solution when he is ready.

I don’t blame the Athletics for wanting both of the Tigers top prospects, but Turner would be a lot easier to part with considering the depth of pitching Detroit has in the upper portion of its system. Detroit also has Andrew Oliver, Casey Crosby, Drew Smyly, Duane Below and Adam Wilk and could maybe part with Turner and another pitcher among with something else in a deal. Detroit also has great depth at catcher (Rob Brantly, Jeff Kunkel) that they could deal as well.

With wide interest in Gonzalez, the price will understandingly be high, but the Tigers shouldn’t give up Castellanos in a deal to acquire the lefty.

Will Rhymes, who opened the 2011 season as the Tigers starting second baseman, is now a free agent after the Tigers declined to offer him a new contract before Monday's non-tender deadline. (Brian Calloway photo)

Will Rhymes might have been short on size but was high on heart.

That is what made the 5-foot-9 and 155-pound Rhymes – a 27th round draft pick out of the College of William and Mary in 2005 – endearing to fans upon his arrival to the big leagues in 2010.

Rhymes wasn’t regarded and didn’t have the tools/skills set of a top prospect like one-time competitor at second base Scott Sizemore had, but turned in a strong showing once called up to the majors during the 2010 season. Rhymes hit .304 in 54 games with 12 doubles and three triples and won over fans with his play. That strong showing over the second half of the season helped in part earn Rhymes the first shot at second base to start the 2011.

Will Rhymes hit .306 in 104 games at Triple-A Toledo in 2011 and was a Triple-A All-Star. (B. Calloway photo)

But Rhymes never got going early in 2011 , batting .221 with 1 double in 19 games before being demoted to Triple-A Toledo and replaced on the Tigers roster by a hot-hitting Sizemore. From there, he pretty much fell out of the Tigers plans.

The 26-year old was a Triple-A All-Star in 2011, but the Tigers obviously don’t see Rhymes in the future plans which is why they declined to offer him a contract for 2012 and allowed him to become a free agent.

Even with the Tigers trading Sizemore to Oakland in May, Rhymes never found his was back to Detroit until rosters expanded in September. Instead the Tigers went with a combination of Carlos Guillen, Ryan Raburn, Ramon Santiago and Danny Worth at second base. And the Tigers appear content right now to use a platoon of Santiago and Raburn for that position in 2012.

This decision by the Tigers brass in essentially the best case scenario for both parties. With Rhymes likely being a longshot to make the major league roster out of spring training, he will get a chance to go elsewhere to try to get back to the majors. And the Tigers still have enough options at second base.