Leyland goes to bat for slumping Sheff

Leyland goes to bat for slumping Sheff

DETROIT -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland defended his slumping designated hitter before Sunday's primetime game against the Angels.

Gary Sheffield, at age 39, has not had an ideal start to the season. He entered Sunday's contest batting a team-low .169 with one home run and three RBIs. More puzzling, he is a Major League-worst 0-for-16 with runners in scoring position. The Angels even intentionally walked Placido Polanco on Saturday to get to Sheffield.

Fans have called for Leyland to move Sheffield from the No. 3 spot in the order, while some suggest he put new third baseman Carlos Guillen, with his history of knee and leg problems, at DH and Brandon Inge at third.

Leyland said fans bring up fair points. He just wanted to offer fair answers.

First, he addressed the idea of dropping Sheffield in the order.

"If you don't think he's going to hit," Leyland said, "you don't play him. [Fans ask], 'Why bat him three? Why don't you bat him eighth?' If you don't think a guy's going to hit, why even bat him at all?

"I like our lineup. I like Sheffield in the three spot. If he's hitting, he's a No. 3 hitter."

And, according to Leyland, he's close to hitting. Shoulder problems could still be holding Sheffield back. After all, he's had two cortisone shots in his surgically repaired right shoulder, and another in his left, in recent weeks. He just returned to the lineup on Friday after a five-game absence, so more at-bats could help.

"The guy's had three shots in the last two weeks. We don't know yet if we're seeing the real Gary Sheffield at all," Leyland said. "We don't know if he'll be effective at all. We're going to find out."

Batting with that hurt shoulder, Leyland said, plus the tough pitching Sheffield sees, could be responsible for his inconsistent timing in the season's first month.

"I think some pitchers pitch Sheffield tougher than anybody on our team," Leyland said. "There was a time when Gary Sheffield and Barry Bonds were the two most-feared hitters in baseball. I'm not saying all the time, but there was a period of time when they were probably the two most-feared hitters in baseball -- bar none. Trust me. He still sees tough pitching for it.

"It's not like he's getting balls blown by him. It's not that his bat is slowing up, and they're blowing balls by him. He's hitting balls hard foul. His timing is definitely not right, but his bat isn't slow. I've seen guys throwing 95-96 [mph], and he's hitting it to left field foul."

Leyland suggested the 19 home runs Sheffield needs to reach the 500-homer mark could be in the back of his mind.

However, Leyland said, based on his close relationship with the slugger, that Sheffield doesn't play to pad statistics and certainly wouldn't hold the team back for the sake of a milestone.

"Gary Sheffield would be the first guy in this office saying that he wasn't helping the team," Leyland said. "Trust me, he doesn't play for his own stats. Believe me, he won't do that. If he feels like he can't be the Gary Sheffield he wants to be, he'll tell me. I believe that. That hasn't happened, and I don't expect it to happen.

"Do I think he'll hit? Yes I do. Do I think he'll hit like the Gary Sheffield of old? I doubt it. But do I think he can hit enough to be a productive hitter in our lineup? Yes I do."

Scott McNeish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.