April 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tony Paul

Tony Paul's MLB Insider: Alex Avila's green light on 3-0 was the obvious call

I don't want to say that if you were against Alex Avila letting it rip at a three balls-no strikes meatball Wednesday night, then you don't know much about baseball.

I really don't want to say that; it's not entirely fair.

But, man, I sure thought it for a fleeting second or two.

It's stunning the outcry that followed, mostly on Twitter and sports-talk radio, after the final out of the Tigers’ 6-4 loss to the White Sox at Comerica Park. If you didn't know better, or hadn't watched the game, you'd assume Avila hit one of his slow-rolling grounders to second.

But he didn't. He did what most big-league hitters do on fat 3-0 pitches — yes, even struggling big-league hitters — he scorched the ball. It just so happened the White Sox defense was hugging the lines, as teams do late in games to protect leads, and first baseman Jose Abreu snagged Avila's scorcher to finish off the Tigers toughest loss to date. With a typical defensive alignment, it's tie game, with the winning run standing on second base.

Fans' most popular argument for Avila taking that pitch seemed to be that he's struggling. And that's true. His season has been mostly a debacle, offensively.

That said, the last three games, he's had some fantastic, vintage swings, using his lower body to drive the ball to all fields. He's also hit some hard balls, probably more than any other Tiger in this series. Even many of his outs have been smashed. Oh, and he also just happened to lace a double off White Sox closer Matt Lindstrom on Monday. Notice who was on the mound in the ninth Wednesday? Lindstrom.

The bottom line, it didn't work out for Detroit. Funny, though, that had Avila blooped a single to center to tie the game, it would've been widely praised as the "right call."

Fans have this phobia of hitters swinging on 3-0, and some hitters don't like it either. That's because we all grew up being told you take a 3-0 pitch. Odds are, your Little League coach explained over postgame orange slices and ice cream, you'll draw a walk. And, boy, base runners are a good thing.

The Tigers, though, didn't need a walk in this situation. If runners were on first and second, sure, take the walk. But they needed a hit. Any hit would tie the game, thanks to great base running by Victor Martinez and Austin Jackson, moving to third and second on Nick Castellanos' fly ball to right field.

And what better pitch to get that hit than on 3-0? Just ask the Associated Press' Noah Trister, who late Wednesday posted this little nugget on Twitter: Last season, major-league hitters batted .353 with a .716 slugging percentage on 3-0 pitches.

Why? Because the pitcher almost always throws a beach ball in on 3-0 — assuming, like many of us, the hitter will simply let it go by without so much as a flinch.

Manager Brad Ausmus knows this. So does Avila. That's why Ausmus easily gave him the green light, and why Avila gladly accepted — then took a mighty hack on a grooved pitch that was likely to be more hittable than anything Torii Hunter, set to come cold as a pinch-hitter, would see his entire at-bat.

That's baseball. That's good baseball.

Rangers roll with the punches

You think the Tigers have injuries?

They have nothing on the Rangers, who today remain without pitchers Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Tanner Scheppers; catcher Geovany Soto; infielders Adrian Beltre and Jurickson Profar; and many others. All are on the disabled list, including Soto and Profar for a good chunk of the season.

Plus, their big free-agent pickup, Shin-Soo Choo, is out with an ankle injury, and one of their pleasant surprises, Kevin Kouzmanoff, now has a back ailment.

They also are getting next to no production from former Tiger Prince Fielder (.200, two homers, seven runs batted in).

Yet there the Rangers stand, at 14-8 after Wednesday's 3-0 win over their top American League West rival, the A's — good for the best record in the American League.

Pretty impressive stuff, that sweep of the A's. Not that Ron Washington is one to buy into the hype.

"It's three games," the Rangers manager told reporters. "It's no big significance."

What is significant, however, is the resurgent play of Alex Rios, and left-hander Martin Perez is in the midst of a 26-inning scoreless streak.

Plus, they'll start to get healthy soon.

Now that's a scary thought.

Pining for common sense

I'm all for handing Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda that lengthy suspension, 10 games handed down Thursday by MLB, for being a PED — a Pretty Evident Dunce.

After being warned about his pine tar use earlier this season — by his own team and opponents — the right-hander made the oddball decision to not only use it again, but store it in the dumbest place: smack dab on his neck.

It led to an easy — and hilarious — ejection during Wednesday's Yankees-Red Sox game.

Look, pine tar use is widely accepted in baseball. Managers like Boston's John Farrell won't often complain, because their pitchers usually use some substance, too. (Clay Buchholz's greasy hair is not normal for anyone who doesn't work at an oil-change shop.) The tar is said to help a pitcher get a better grip, particularly in cold conditions. Some even suspect it adds movement to the breaking ball.

Pineda's problem: way too obvious. One former major-league pitcher told me it's common to store the tar in the hat, or pant leg, or the belt — places the pitcher often touches during a game anyway. Said pitcher might wet his hair, too; that's discrete, as it can be mistaken for sweat.

But pine tar on the neck? Nobody's ever seen that before, nor will we again.

Rookie debate

Get ready for that rookie of the year debate, which comes around every so often, and will with increased frequency as teams continue to step up their international scouting.

Abreu, the Popeye-like White Sox first baseman who put on an epic display at Comerica Park this week with not one but two massive homers to the shrubbery in dead-center field, is the early favorite for AL Rookie of the Year. And before too long, he could run away with it.

Yet, Abreu, 27, is a rookie only by Major League Baseball's definition. He has played professionally in Cuba since 2005, when he was 18. His main competition for rookie of the year could be Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who has come to MLB after seven seasons in the Japan Pacific League.

Meanwhile, a guy like Tigers third baseman Nick Castellanos might have a prayer of winning the award, even though he's the closest to a true rookie.

Question is: Is that fair?

Doesn't matter. Those are the rules, until they aren't. And they're not likely to change anytime soon, if ever, when you consider the Baseball Writers Association of America stayed the course, even after Hideo Nomo won in 1995, Kaz Sasaki in 2000 and Ichiro Suzuki in 2001.

Around the horn

Ben Verlander, Justin Verlander's kid brother, hit his first home run for Single A West Michigan on Wednesday afternoon. And it was an impressive at-bat. Verlander fouled off several two-strike pitches, and also laid off a close two-strike offering, before jumping on the next pitch and smoking a line drive over the wall in left field at Fifth Third Ballpark.

… Tommy John surgery has become almost an epidemic in baseball this year, with so many pitchers going down with elbow injuries. It's surprising the pitcher whom it's named for doesn't attribute the issues to too much work in the pros. "In essence, the injury itself is a buildup of overuse," John told the Watertown Daily Times. "And not overuse as an adult, but overuse as a kid."

… Fielder isn't the only ex-Tiger who's stumbled upon hard times. Their former shortstop, Jhonny Peralta, is batting just .151 for the Cardinals and hasn't had a single hit in his last six games. The Cardinals have lost four of those games.

Three up …

1. Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, who is almost back to the big leagues after taking a line drive to the face in a super-scary scene this spring.

2. Tigers outfield prospect Connor Harrell, who didn't just hit a home run last week but hit it off Phillies ace Cole Hamels, rehabbing in Florida.

3. The Braves, who, despite all injuries to key pitchers during spring training, have allowed by far the fewest runs in baseball.

… Three down

1. Nationals phenom Bryce Harper recently got benched for a lack of hustle — on the same day the Nats sold programs bragging about his hustle.

2. The 500-homer mark, which just isn't what it used to be — when you consider Adam Dunn might get there someday. Congrats to Albert Pujols, all the same.

3. There's the Mariners offense we all know and love. They've scored 76 runs this season, with 26 of those coming in the opening three games.

Diamond digits

3 — Starting pitchers since 1900 to strike out at least 10 batters but last four innings or fewer, according to Elias Sports Bureau: Michael Wacha and Danny Salazar this year, and Felix Hernandez last season.

25 — Consecutive scoreless innings for the Twins bullpen, including seven in an extra-winning victory over the Rays on Wednesday.

4/25/1901 — Trailing 13-4 in the bottom of the ninth inning at Bennett Park, the Tigers mounted a comeback for the ages to beat the Milwaukee Brewers, 14-13.

He said it

"I actually played for them in '86. But no."

— Terry Francona, Indians manager, asked if he ever had a good game at Wrigley Field.

If you want to ask Tony a question about the Tigers, you can e-mail him at tpaul@detroitnews.com or hit him up on Twitter at tonypaul1984. Every Tuesday, he hosts a Tigers chat on Twitter.

Alex Avila walks off the field after fouling out to end the game for the Tigers on Wednesday night. Avila is hitting .213 this season. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News