The Tigers believe he can fill that role, which is why he'll start Tuesday's American League Central tiebreaker against the Twins live on TBS at 5:07 p.m. ET. Just as important, he believes he can be that player.
"Definitely my confidence is bigger," he said Sunday after his two-homer game helped power the Tigers past the White Sox in a 5-3 victory that set up the winner-take-all contest vs. Minnesota. "Coming in, I was fighting for a job."
For Tuesday, that's no longer a problem.
After spending much of the summer as the Tigers' left fielder against left-handed starting pitchers, as well as a late-inning defensive replacement for Carlos Guillen in other games, Raburn is simply hitting too well to sit as the Tigers await Twins right-hander Scott Baker. That, plus the fact that right-handed hitters bat for a higher average off Baker than left-handed ones, leaves manager Jim Leyland going against past tendencies.
Leyland did not start Raburn when the Tigers faced Baker Thursday at Comerica Park. He won't repeat that this time.
"I'll have to think about it," Leyland said jokingly when asked Sunday.
"He's done a great job," Leyland said, "no question about that."
While Magglio Ordonez has been Detroit's hottest hitter since the start of September, Raburn hasn't been far behind. The past four weeks have seen six of Raburn's 16 home runs this season, as well as 11 of his 45 RBIs. His batting average over that stretch is a scorching .360 (18-for-50) with an OPS of 1.151.
Part of the success stems from working hard on his hitting, a credit to himself and hitting coach Lloyd McClendon. The other part, the part that Leyland has emphasized, is his confidence, which began as his biggest hindrance in April but now may be his best strength.
When the Tigers brought back Raburn from Triple-A Toledo in mid-April and put him into their starting lineup April 22 at Angel Stadium, he had trouble judging a pair of fly balls that went for hits while going 0-for-2 with a strikeout. Once the Tigers had chased Angels left-hander Joe Saunders from the game, Leyland replaced Raburn with Josh Anderson.
|"He's had a heckuva year. I couldn't be happier for him. He's such a great kid."|
|-- Tigers manager Jim Leyland, on Ryan Raburn|
"I think he's a better player than he gives himself credit for," Leyland told reporters earlier this year.
Raburn admits he was beating himself up mentally. He's always been tough on himself, even after making the big league roster as a utility player last year, and not making the team out of camp put that sense into overdrive once he came back and got a shot.
"I was fighting for a job, so I probably put a lot of pressure on myself," Raburn said. "Probably too much."
The way to alleviate that, from Leyland's standpoint, was to settle Raburn into some sort of role. Guillen's shoulder injury, which cost him 2 1/2 months on the disabled list, provided the opportunity.
Raburn was just 2-for-21 in his first month with the team before the bat came around in a big way. He homered in three straight games, including a grand slam May 15 against Oakland, and began settling in at the plate.
His power isn't necessarily a surprise. His pop in the Minor Leagues, including a 20-homer season at Triple-A Toledo in 2006, made him an appealing player for a utility role and a player that other clubs tracked. The thing is, Leyland was tracking him, too.
Leyland has always been a fan of Raburn and readily comes to his defense. When a San Francisco reporter called him a "scrub" in an article after a pinch-hit home run against the Giants last year, Leyland and teammates came to Raburn's defense. When Raburn had trouble in the field early in the season, Leyland tried to give him a confidence boost.
When Curtis Granderson's struggles with left-handed pitching prompted Leyland to move him down in the order a month ago, he went with Raburn up top. Suddenly, Raburn's offense became a spark plug. It hasn't carried over to the rest of the offense, but it's carrying over to his.
"It doesn't really matter whether it's the leadoff spot or not," Raburn said. "Just anytime you get in the lineup, really that leadoff spot's only to start the game off. Other than that, you can hit third, fourth or fifth. Anytime I'm in the lineup, I'm ready."
Leyland knew what Raburn could do. Now that he's doing it -- just at the time the Tigers need offense -- Leyland is ready to go with him with the season on the line.
"He's had a heckuva year," Leyland said recently. "I couldn't be happier for him. He's such a great kid."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.