Avila's at-bats will hinge on knack for beating shift

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
If Tigers catcher Alex Avila can spray the ball, he'll pick up more at-bats against the left-handed pitching.

Lakeland, Fla. — Alex Avila, batting second? We get that.

But Alex Avila, batting second against a tough left-handed pitcher. Well, we won't have to get used to that.

Avila is a good No. 2 candidate against righties, but probably won't play much against lefties in 2015, especially if rookie James McCann lives up to his potential.

That said, Avila held his own against Mets lefty Steven Matz on Saturday at Joker Marchant Stadium.

The first at-bat, he got behind 0-2 but battled back to work the count full before hitting a hard grounder up the middle. It was scooped up because of the defensive shift that Avila is all too used to.

But his next time up, Avila beat the shift, driving a grounder through the gaping hole on the left side of the infield.

And that's a pretty picture for manager Brad Ausmus.

"He's made a concerted effort in batting practice to hit the ball the other way," Ausmus said. "I hope he does it enough to stop having the shift."

Offensive numbers are down throughout baseball in recent years, and there are a number of factors: Steroid testing, better pitching, etc.

Another one, certainly, is the great increase in the defensive shift, particularly against pull-happy left-handed hitters — with three infielders positioned on the right side of second base.

Even with the shift, many hitters still don't adjust their game plan, because the theory for some says the results will be better if they don't try to get get too fancy and change things up.

But the numbers suggest Avila switch things up. While he has had good home-run and extra-base power the opposite way for his career, his singles usually are pulled. And with all the defensive shifting, he's losing several singles a year.

That's not to say that's the main reason his batting average is on a steady decline. Some of it's injuries; some of it's him being too passive at the plate.

He still walks his fair share, and his on-base percentage usually is among the top half of the roster.

So any way Avila can get on base, that's a good thing — particularly if he's batting second, as Ausmus would like him to do against right-handers. Even if that means getting on base by bunting down the third-base line, which is completely vacant when the shift is on.

"That's something we've been focusing on with Alex," Ausmus said.

Avila finished the game 2-for-5, going the distance as the designated hitter.


Tigers left-fielder Yoenis Cespedes fouled a ball off his leg in the bottom of the fourth inning; it missed some padding, causing him to wince in pain outside the box.

That brought Ausmus and trainer Kevin Rand out, but not for long.

Cespedes was good to go, and in that same at-bat, he crushed a ball about 410 feet to dead-center — it was caught just shy of the warning track.

An inning later, Cespedes came out of the game, but Ausmus said that wasn't related to any injury. It was the plan all along.

"He was moving fine; he didn't come out because of that," Ausmus said.

Cespedes will play Sunday, in the split-squad game in Lakeland.

He was 0-for-2 in the game.

Ryan reliable

If Kyle Ryan is fighting for his major-league life, well, he's winning.

The lefty through 1.2 scoreless innings Saturday, striking out one. He didn't allow a hit or a walk.

Ryan is becoming a better and better bet to make the Opening Day roster, not just because of his good spring so far, but also because he can go multiple innings, and the Tigers don't really have another guy like that in the mix.

While Ryan got the win Saturday, another bullpen candidate, lefty Ian Krol, got the save, striking out two and allowing a hit in the ninth inning.

Krol is impressing Tigers brass with his rejuvenated health and fastball this spring. Saturday was his first game back after battling some forearm soreness.

'W' to claim

So, who gets credit for the win Saturday?

Gene Lamont, who started the game as manager while Ausmus was watching Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez hit in a minor-league game on the back fields?

Or Ausmus, who didn't arrive until the third inning or so?

"When I got there, we were losing," Ausmus said after the 6-4 victory, the Tigers' first triumph in 10 games. "It was 2-1 Mets when I got there."

Around the horn

The Tigers hitters in the split-squad lineup Sunday in Lakeland will catch a break. The Nationals' Stephen Strasburg will miss the start after twisting his left. Prospect A.J. Cole will get the start instead.

... Jim Bowden, an ESPN analyst and host on Sirius/XM radio, stopped by TigerTown on Saturday, and said whlle many fans are doubting the Tigers this year, he might be picking them to win the World Series.

... A familiar voice was calling a game in the Joker Marchant Stadium press box Saturday: Josh Lewin, who's doing Mets games on the radio. Back in the day, he called games brilliantly with Kirk Gibson on FSD.

... Another robust crowd over 9,000 on another steamy day in Florida. It was so bad Friday, that Joker Marchant Stadium actually ran out of bottled water.

... After his start Saturday, the Mets sent Matz back to minor-league camp.​