April 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Tigers still back slumping backstop Alex Avila, but time is running short

Detroit — They were not so much baseball statistics as they were casualty numbers.

They belonged to Alex Avila. They broke down accordingly a couple of hours before the Tigers got ready Monday to play the White Sox at Comerica Park.

Batting average: .167. Home runs: zero. RBIs: zero. On-base percentage: .286. Slugging percentage: .222. Strikeouts: 21 in 12 games and 36 official at-bats.

This was one gruesome slump Avila was trying to subdue Monday. And he might have gotten closer to crushing it when he put together four strong at-bats, which included his first RBI of the season as well as a long, ninth-inning double to right-center in the Tigers’ 3-1 loss to the White Sox.

“He looked much better tonight,” said Brad Ausmus, the Tigers manager who has been trying to win games with Avila, and more critically, Miguel Cabrera, each scrounging for hits.

“I saw the ball great,” Avila said afterward in a Tigers dressing room that was as quiet as a monastery. “I had some great swings.”

This might have been Avila’s breakthrough game. In his first at-bat in the second inning, he hit a hard ground ball that would have been a hit had the sudden craze in defensive shifts not thwarted him. It was at least good for his first RBI of 2014.

In the fifth, he hit a lightning bolt to the White Sox’s shifted right side. Marcus Semien snared it and doubled off Nick Castellanos. In the seventh, he drove a pitch deep to center field for an out. In the ninth, he drove a Matt Lindstrom pitch over the right-center field wall for a deep ground-rule double.

Avila shrugged at the counts in which he drove those pitches Monday. But it was significant that these were the ball-strike totals when he connected: 1-0, 1-0, 2-1, and 2-1.

He was swinging early. And swinging ahead. For most of the past month he has been relentlessly deep and down in the count as third strikes have either been taken or missed.

Regaining confidence

Fans were plainly as tortured by Avila’s at-bats as was a 27-year-old, left-handed batter who before Monday seemed to be fighting nearly every pitch.

Everyone, it seems, pulling a Tigers paycheck is looking for answers.

“I think he’s got to duplicate his contact point,” hitting coach Wally Joyner said Monday afternoon after he stopped for a debriefing outside the coaches’ office. “You want to keep it short and simple. You want to try and let the ball get deep.

“He’s still trying to get comfortable. We’re working on some things. There have been signs of his confidence coming back.”

There were more signs a few hours later. Avila avoided a single whiff Monday against White Sox left-hander John Danks and his bullpen cronies. A big turnaround there for a catcher who had struck out 10 times in his previous 19 at-bats.

This is what gets Avila in trouble with Comerica Park’s customers, who were battering him with boos after Sunday’s third punch-out.

They hate strikeouts. And they hate that the Tigers seem not to have a handy option for replacing him. Because he is one of the more civil of Detroit’s sports entertainers, it irks the more ornery crowd that he is perceived to get a break from media and from his bosses, one of whom, assistant general manager Al Avila, happens to be his father.

You saw this sentiment build as his April strikeouts mounted. He should not be in Detroit, the critics said. He should be in the minors. Don’t bother us anymore with this “but he calls a great game” business. Do not tell us about his defense. Do not divert attention from his bat by saying pitchers prefer working with him behind the plate. Et cetera. Et cetera.

The truth is, if he played another position, the Tigers might well have returned him to Triple A Toledo for a week of mental cleansing. And, if his slump and strikeouts spree were to resume, that might be a reasonable option. But the Tigers are torn. And not only because they have been expecting him to shake loose, as was implied by his Monday at-bats.

Riding through it

Avila plays the most complex job on the field. He has also endured these ugly stretches before and has rebounded, as he did last season, when during the season’s second half he batted .303, with a .376 on-base percentage, and a dynamite .500 slugging percentage, good for an All-Star-grade OPS of .876. He had an .895 OPS during his All-Star season of 2011.

So, it’s there. Somewhere. He and the Tigers need to find it, which is a thought no doubt shared by Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers president and general manager who is sticking with Avila.

“He’s working with Wally,” Dombrowski said during a Monday morning phone conversation. “He has scuffled. It’s just something where we have to ride through it. He’s had some good at-bats, and even though he’s struggling from an offensive perspective, his defense has been tremendous. He’s catching well. Making the good throws when he has had a chance to throw out a runner. And he has handled the staff very well.

“He’s a tough guy. You can see that. A tough person. I’m sure it (April’s batting woes) wears him down as it does anyone.”

Avila’s approach, before and after Monday’s game, was to sidestep any signs of stress. To find balance in his words that would match the equilibrium he has been trying to re-establish in his at-bats.

“You always know in the back of your mind that there have been struggles before and I’ve come out of them,” he said, speaking mostly of last year’s first half, when he batted .177, with an ugly OPS of .572. “I’m not planning on struggling as long as I did last year.”

The reality is he cannot struggle in the same way. A catcher’s offense is too critical to simply forgo for months, hoping that it returns.

Maybe, though, he and Joyner were both onto something Monday. A coach talked about “confidence coming back.” Avila, after stinging the ball four times, was happy with how he had seen and charged Monday’s pitches.

Maybe a turnaround was somewhere in the conception stage. This four-game series against the White Sox should provide some brand of clue either way. Monday’s sampling was meager. But it was at least something a man more weary than he could let on might look at as a turning point. He, and his team, certainly hope so.


Tigers catcher Alex Avila has 21 strikeouts in 36 at-bats this season. He had an RBI groundout in the first inning Monday. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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