October 19, 2013 at 1:00 am

Tony Paul

News and views: Brayan Pena is Tigers' best catching option if Alex Avila can't go

Detroit catcher Brayan Pena reacts after third base umpire Rob Drake got a little too close on a play with Boston's Will Middlebrooks at third base in the eighth inning Thursday. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

Detroit — Tigers fans haven’t taken too many calm, relaxing breaths lately — from the on-the-edge-of-your-seat, five-game thriller against the A’s, to the pull-your-hair-out American League Championship Series against the Red Sox.

But it hasn’t lacked drama, this postseason.

From staving off elimination to advance past the first round to five excruciating nailbiters — that’s if you have any nails left to bite — this round, it’s been one of the most exciting playoff runs in recent Tigers memory.

You’d probably have to go back to 1968 to find anything that compares.

It may all end soon, of course, in less than 24 hours even. But given the twists and turns we’ve seen so far, it just as likely may not.

Either way, Tigers fans, soon enough, you’ll be able to breathe easy again.

News: The Tigers lost Alex Avila in Game 5, after he was run over by Red Sox catcher David Ross on a play at the plate. Sounds like he could be ready to return Saturday night, if his left knee cooperates.

Views: It was an interesting sequence for the Tigers and Avila on Thursday night.

After the incident at the plate — which was perfectly clean, by the way — Avila appeared seriously dazed. But he stayed in the game, and darn near hit a one-out double the next-half inning.

But the half-inning after that, he couldn’t corral an Anibal Sanchez wild pitch, was slow to get after it, and it led to a Red Sox run. It led to many Tigers fans wondering: If Jim Leyland had called for Brayan Pena earlier, would that run have scored?

The answer? Probably. In Leyland’s mind, definitely.

“The wild pitch had nothing to do with it,” Leyland said Friday, after I asked what prompted the decision to eventually remove Avila. “Nobody could have stopped that ball. The fact that we took him out was because the knee was throbbing. The pain wasn’t any worse one inning after the next, but it was throbbing pretty good.”

Leyland also pointed out that in the fourth inning, Avila got smoked by yet another foul tip — also courtesy of Ross.

Then, in the bottom of the fourth inning, Pena entered as a pinch-hitter.

“Hopefully we have him ready for the game back in Boston,” Leyland said. “Whether we’re going to, I don’t really know. But it was obvious that he was hurting pretty good. He said he could stay in, but actually I made the decision, ‘You know what, this doesn’t make sense.’ ”

What probably also doesn’t make sense is Leyland putting in Victor Martinez at catcher today, an idea he’s toying with if Avila’s not a go. Max Scherzer, with that unpredictable hold time, keeps runners off-balance as well as anybody — and he’d need to be perfect with Martinez catching, as his arm is a distant third among Detroit’s catchers.

News: The Red Sox have won three games this series, all by one run.

Views: And this is becoming a serious problem for the Tigers.

They were 20-26 in one-run games during the regular season, after going 21-27 during the 2012 regular season. Combined, that’s 12 games under .500.

There are obvious reasons for this, of course. For starters, the bullpen has been shaky at times.

But here’s the biggest reason: The Tigers simply don’t manufacture runs. They are a team built on the backbone of pure power, from Miguel Cabrera to Prince Fielder to Martinez to Jhonny Peralta to Avila, and pretty much right on down the line.

Whereas the Red Sox have guys on top like Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino, who create as many scoring opportunities with their legs as their bats, and the A’s have Coco Crisp, who’s an absolute terror in so many ways, the Tigers have none of that.

They’re so collectively slow, it sometimes takes four hits in an inning to score. Seriously.

Austin Jackson is a good hitter, but one of the biggest myths about him is his speed. It translates into center field, but he’s not a base stealer. Jose Iglesias, certainly, will be some day, but that’ll require getting on base first. And that’s an issue right now.

Not sure how Dave Dombrowski addresses this, either. The minor leagues have nothing coming right up, with the July departure of Avisail Garcia. And the upcoming free-agent market is bare, too, outside of the biggest possible splash — Ellsbury, though it’s very doubtful he’ll be anywhere close to fitting in Detroit’s budget.

Unless Dombrowski can get creative in a trade, and you never rule that out with him, for the foreseeable future, the Tigers look like they’ll continue to live — and, perhaps soon this year, die — by the three-run homer.

News: Mike Napoli’s contract with Boston almost fell through last offseason. Boy, Detroit wishes it had.

Views: That’s right. Napoli, the free agent, departed Texas and in early December agreed to a massive three-year, $39 deal to play for Boston.

But once the medical folks got involved, it was scrapped.

Docs found worrisome issues with Napoli, namely with his hip. So the Red Sox swiftly backed away from the big-bucks deal — and in late January, the two parties, instead, struck a reasonable, one-year, $5 million contract that included incentives.

The Red Sox also got him on a treatment program, to which his body’s responded well.

So it looks like Napoli now will get paid, just a year later, after a phenomenal showing in the ALCS. Man, his neck sure didn’t look sore when it was staring out to the shrubbery next to the Comerica Park camera well where his 450-foot homer landed in Game 5.

“The way he’s performed is everything that we anticipated,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “And a main contributor to our entire year.”

Napoli, 31, had 23 homers and 92 RBIs in the regular season, but his biggest work has come over the last week.

While Fielder, the Tigers first baseman, has been mostly a singles hitter this postseason, the less-talked-about Napoli has greatly risen to the occasion. He was 3-for-4 in Game 5, and has two huge — and not just in distance — homers this series, for which he’s in fine position to be named MVP, should the Red Sox hold on.

tpaul@detroitnews.com
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