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06/18/08 5:25 PM ET

Tigers' D reflects strong coaching

Van Slyke's advice keeps outfield catching and winning

SAN FRANCISCO -- Marcus Thames' home runs gave him every reason to be proud on Tuesday night. He was just about as excited, however, about his catch in the sixth inning that might well have kept the Tigers from falling behind the Giants. He wasn't the only one with reason to be proud.

Thames has worked for much of this season and before it to improve his defense, and plays like Tuesday's shoestring catch are one example. When asked if he felt like he had the ball read off the bat, he cited something outfield coach Andy Van Slyke preaches to him about those plays.

"I got a good jump," Thames said. "I just told myself to go ahead and [go] after it. That's one thing Andy teaches us: If you think you have a good read on it, get out there and take a dive for it if you can, because [center fielder] Curtis [Granderson] is backing me up. I got a good read on it, and it helped us out of a jam."

Improving Thames' defense has been one of Van Slyke's many tasks as the Tigers' outfield coach. His work does not go unnoticed.

"All our outfielders are better," manager Jim Leyland said. "They're working with one of the best."

While no shortage of focus, good and bad, has been placed on hitting coach Lloyd McClendon and pitching coach Chuck Hernandez for the challenges they've faced this year, outfield defense is an entirely different facet of coaching. It goes so overlooked oftentimes, especially behind a pitching staff known for inducing ground-ball outs, that half the challenge is to get players to really work on it. If they commit to it, the improvement comes quickly.

When Leyland was looking to fill out his coaching staff in the fall of 2005, he knew Van Slyke brought the resume for the job. Just as important, though, was the personality.

"I knew he'd be energetic, sometimes overenergetic," Leyland said. "Defensively, there weren't many better than Andy Van Slyke. That guy could catch. He could throw. He was really good.

"But he's got energy. That's what I like about him. He works hard. He's strong. I think that's important in a coach. You don't need them all to be that way, but you need some of them to be that way. You have to be positive. He works."

In turn, Van Slyke's players work. He will hit fly balls to players on occasion during pregame batting practice in the regular season. They can't practice throws to the plate, but they can throw to second base and at least work on their accuracy.

Tigers outfielders entered Wednesday's series finale against the Giants with as many assists this season (10) as errors, including four assists from center. They had two key catches in left field on Tuesday night, with the aforementioned grab by Thames and a sliding catch from Brent Clevlen that denied the Giants a run in the ninth.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.