DETROIT — It’s been a while since former Tiger Alex Avila has hit a baseball as far as he did on Wednesday. His efforts nearly spoiled the Tigers’ chances for a sweep, but between two closers, Detroit was able to get to David Robertson and Chicago had no answers for Francisco Rodriguez. Once again, the Tigers clawed their way back and they’ve won eight in their last 10 games heading into a day off.
After spending all of his seven MLB seasons with the Tigers, Avila found himself on another team, and — not for the first time this year — facing a former teammate. Avila has a few home runs that have claimed the bushes in center field at Comerica Park. But it’s been a little over two years since he hit one more than 430 feet (his last was July 12, 2014 for 438 feet). He didn’t have to wait long to capitalize on what was a fairly decent pitch from Verlander.
Verlander had just given up a home run to Jose Abreu on a line drove shot to left field. That run had come after six pitches and on an 87-mph changeup. Avila’s was on the first pitch fastball down and in, and he obliterated it to dead center. Verlander, after the game, joked about getting payback for the homer.
“I know I’m gonna be hearing about it,” Verlander laughed after the game. “I think I’m gonna ask him back for one of the watches that I gifted him. It’s only fair, I think. I think I gave him two or three. I don’t know, I’ll start with the least expensive one and work my way up. We’ll be facing each other a lot.”
For his part, Avila was significantly more subdued about his thoughts on the homer. Between admitting the two would “talk about it at some point,” the two strikeouts suffered at the hands of his former teammate weren’t lost on him, either. Though he readily acknowledged with a grin on his face that it felt good to be able to plant one in the bushes off of Verlander.
The camaraderie between the two is not lost even with Avila gone from the team. But the competitive nature that once lived within the confines of the same clubhouse has now reached across enemy lines. With how the Tigers treated Chris Sale in their last visit to Detroit, that only adds to the aggressive environment when these two teams meet, regardless of who’s starting — or which city both teams are in.
For Sale, he’s at least glad that the outcome wasn’t as brutal as during his last visit, particularly when he faced J.D. Martinez — the score wasn’t high, but the result stung. Martinez, in his first at-bat back off the disabled list, took Sale deep and put the Tigers up 2-1 in the eighth. On Wednesday, Martinez dropped an RBI single to tie the ballgame in the eighth.
“(Martinez has) been hot, too,” Avila said. “(Sale) made two really good pitches, fastballs in and away. Being (in a) 1-1 (count), and at that point with two outs already, you're trying to make him hit your pitch, and (J.D.) did that. (Sale) threw a really nice changeup off the plate and away. Got him out in front, an eighth of an inch and it's probably a weak ground ball to short. Gotta give them credit where it's due, (Martinez) hit a good pitch, as well.”
And that seems to be the theme with the Tigers lately. They have had an uncanny knack to come from behind lately, and Martinez has been a key part of most of that. He’s batting .410 entering Wednesday’s game, but the most recent addition has been largely responsible for the last two wins.
JaCoby Jones, who now has a total of two games of MLB experience under his belt, has had a pair of two-hit days, three doubles, two RBI, and three runs scored. He nearly blasted a walk-off home run to right on Wednesday, but it bounced off the wall high and settled for a double. But he’s been a spark plug for a team that desperately needs to win games, not only to grab hold of a wild card spot, but retain hope of catching the Indians.
Of the 29 remaining games in the Tigers’ season, 23 are against AL Central Division opponents. Seven are against the Indians, and 10 times they face either the White Sox or the Twins — both bad teams. The only outside competition they have remains with a three-game series against the Orioles (with whom they’re competing for a wild card spot) and a three-game series with the floundering Braves to end the year.
Following Wednesday’s win, the Tigers are a half-game out of the second Wild Card and could tie Baltimore if the Orioles lose. But while that schedule gives the illusion of an easy finish, the Tigers still need to get Nick Castellanos, Mike Pelfrey, and Jordan Zimmermann back. Regardless of how they’d contribute, the team needs them in the long run.
Bragging rights versus old teammates and all, the Tigers have had a can’t-quit, won’t-quit attitude that’s kept them in this race. With the final month on approach, they’re going to need a lot more of it.
“Yeah, it’s a great feeling,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “When you can come from behind and win ballgames, you end up in the position that you want a lot. The last couple years, i don’t think we came from behind that often, and it’s a good feeling (to have that now). You always feel like you’re in the game, no matter what — unless it’s a blowout.
“When you have that positive atmosphere coming down from the locker room into the dugout, in a game that you’re losing, that’s a great feeling to have, and you feel like you should be in a great position to win every single ballgame, as long as the pitchers are keeping us in the game.”