Detroit — Somehow, someway, Alex Avila caught the ball.
And somehow, someway, he didn’t even pull a muscle doing it.
The Tigers catcher made a brilliant stop on a wild change-up by Max Scherzer in the top of the sixth inning — a play that won’t get remembered in the box score, but was pivotal in Detroit’s 4-1 victory over the Dodgers on Wednesday.
“He saved that,” Scherzer said. “That was a big moment in the game.”
With the Tigers clinging to a 3-1 lead in the sixth inning, against a quieted-but-still-frightening Dodgers offense, Yasiel Puig led off with a double.
That brought up Hanley Ramirez, who worked the count to 1-1.
That’s when Scherzer went with the change-up — which, to quote Harry Doyle, sailed juuuuuuuuuuuust a bit outside. Oh, and it bounced, to boot.
But Avila, apparently borrowing some Go-Go-Gadget arm and knees, pounced to his left and caught the ball. That kept Puig at second base, and that was significant.
If that ball gets by Avila, Puig’s on third — and likely is going to score, to make it 3-2. Who knows what would’ve happened from there. One-run leads are so fragile. The pressure is greater. And when the pressure’s greater, pitchers tend to make mistakes.
But, thanks to Avila, Puig stayed put, Ramirez struck out swinging, Adrian Gonzalez grounded to second — that would’ve scored Puig had there been a wild pitch, but instead only moved him to third base — and then Scherzer got Matt Kemp to strike out, swinging, to end the threat.
Asked about the block, Avila laughed.
“I joked with Max all the time. He puts me to work,” Avila said. “Whether it’s balls like that in the dirt, or fastballs that are supposed to be on one side but are on the other side, and I’m spinning around trying to catch them.
“Because his stuff is so nasty, you always have to be prepared for something just completely missing like that.”
Avila acknowledged it was a big play in the inning, but wasn’t going to pat himself on the back. That’s not really his style.
“I’ve made that stop a million times,” he said. “I normally don’t get asked about it.”
Avila has his faults, to be sure. He’s’ not the hitter he once was — you know, like back in the days before he took so many brutal beatings behind the plate. His batting average is low. His strikeouts are high.
But his defense, and his game-calling, remain superior. Don’t kid yourself. It’s a very big deal for a pitcher to have the confidence to bounce a pitch — knowing his catcher’s likely to stop out, like Avila is.
That said, Scherzer laughed about that change-up, noting he wasn’t trying to throw it that far outside. He actually was trying to throw it somewhat near the strike zone.
He missed. In any event, Avila bailed him out.
But that wasn’t all Avila contributed that at-bat. When Scherzer got behind Ramirez 3-1, he wanted to challenge him with a fastball — but Avila insisted on a slider. It proved the right call when Scherzer executed beautifully and froze Ramirez for strike two.
Now they were in Ramirez’s head — Scherzer and Avila could both see how uncomfortable he looked on that slider, and how much he was clueless about what pitch speed Scherzer would go to in the full count — Scherzer went back to the fastball, and he shot one right past Ramirez for the strikeout.
“That was a huge at-bat,” Scherzer said. “Where Alex had a lot do with it.”