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Alex Avila working with hitting coach Wally Joyner on approach at the plate

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Hitting coach Wally Joyner and Tigers catcher Alex Avila are taking steps towards fixing a mechanical issue at the plate.

Leon Halip

Alex Avila has had an up and down season at the plate, to say the least. Behind the plate he's solid, but you knew that already. He can hit for power, but it doesn't help unless Avila makes contact with the ball more than once in a blue moon. Avila's clutch factor is through the roof, but the Tigers need more than clutch, they need stability.

The 2011 season is what fans think about when they think about Avila's ability to mash the baseball, before he came crashing back to earth. If he could get back to that, the Tigers would have it made behind the plate and fans would have their hero. Only, that season was an outlier and aside for that one year, Avila hasn't been one to slug the ball like an All-Star.

As much as fans would love to see Avila destroying baseballs again, no one wants that more than Avila. The answer is a matter of balance and focus, although not the kind of focus you would initially think about. Unfortunately, correcting course hasn't been that simple and Avila has spend the better part of five months trying to stabilize himself.

"He has a little bit of a mechanical issue when he goes forward," Ausmus said. "He drifts off his back leg and I think he takes his head off the ball."

Between April 12 and May 6, Avila hit a high note, literally. He was slashing .295/.404/.545 with two home runs and only 16 strikeouts, and it appeared that the adjustments had been made. Avila tapered off and struggled to make contact, hitting just .231 with little power, only three home runs and striking out a whopping 48 times through the end of July. All too often it seemed as if Avila began his at-bats at an 0-2 count with half a chance he would strike out in the end.

Avila and hitting coach Wally Joyner have been working on a mechanical solution, and Tigers manager Brad Ausmus believes they may have found one. The results haven't caused Avila's numbers to leap off the board, but Avila is hitting more consistently and his contact is more stable.

Last Thursday's walk-off RBI single was a critically important hit for Avila, who wore the biggest smile he's had possibly all season. Getting a hit like that was exactly what Avila needed, not only as a confidence booster but a confirmation that all the hard work is paying off. The Tigers' weekend series against the White Sox is another example.

Avila has been making solid contact for weeks, but it's becoming noticeable and everything from first-pitch swings to extended at-bats are resulting in solid hits. The goal is to correct a mechanical issue that's plagued Avila at the plate for some time, and once that's fixed the rest should follow.

"He and Wally (Joyner) have been working over the last three weeks or so on really staying back over the back side," Ausmus said recently. "I think we're seeing kind of the fruits of his labor, so to speak."

Don't expect those fruits to result in a plus .300 batting average right off the bat; in the month of August Avila slashed .241/.326/.410. While the numbers for average aren't spectacular (for perspective, Miguel Cabrera hit .252 in August), keep in mind Avila smacked three home runs and plated more runners in August than he had in any prior month this season. He also drew 11 walks, a number only beat in May when Avila walked 14 times and had a cringing .197 batting average.

While Joyner works on getting Avila to do more than call the game, Avila's ability to come up "clutch" has not suffered, and last Thursday's win was somewhat of a triple thread. The hit did more than give the Tigers their first walk-off win since June 30 when Rajai Davis clobbered a walk-off grand slam against the A's. It also gave the Tigers momentum going into a long road trip. Most importantly it was a confirmation to Avila, Joyner, and Ausmus that their work is yielding positive results.

Specifically, Avila's back foot during a swing has been firmly planted of late and there is a decreased lack of balance. Balls making contact with Avila's bat have become rockets rather than dribblers, as a result of Avila following through with his eye on the ball. He's seeing the ball better and getting his feet under him.

Much like last Thursday's situation or even Saturday night's game in the ninth inning against the White Sox, Avila's swing is do-or-die. When Avila makes contact with the ball, he generally gets all, or good portion of it. The goal is to make that happen with more regularity, and what Avila and Joyner have been working on should get him there before too long.

"Talked about Alex (Avila) in spring training," Ausmus said. "If he drives in some runs for us, we felt like our offense would be boosted with a bit. He's had his hot and cold streaks, but as of late he's swing the bat better."

Experience and knowledge of the league takes precedence over hitting ability, because the catcher calls the entire game, and the Tigers have that in Avila. The good thing is that's not all he's doing anymore.

Avila has a ways to go before he'll completely fix what's mechanically been ailing him, and there's no way to know how long it will take. Suffice it to say, however, that Avila is producing hits with increased stability, and that's the goal right now. The clutch factor always adds a nice touch, though.