Alex Avila is Tigers’ hero with walk-off RBI against Yankees

Tom Gage
The Detroit News

Detroit — It means a lot if the Tigers keep it going. It means less if they don’t.

Perhaps a lot less.

Thursday’s winning single by Alex Avila was a galvanizing moment for the Tigers in that it handed them a dramatic 3-2 triumph over the Yankees, one of the teams they are battling for a playoff berth.

“He throws a lot of sliders,” Avila said of Shawn Kelley, the pitcher off whom he reached the wall in right with his single. “I took a shot I’d get one early on.”

And, of course, as with any walk-off hit, whether it’s a home run or single, there was a celebration.

With all the fun that’s expected of a celebration.

The players pound each other. The fans, when the game is won at home, go wild.

And a couple players team up to grab the nearest cooler to drench the hero.

The water carriers this time, as they’ve been before, were Nick Castellanos and J.D. Martinez.

They like doing it. And, yes, they got Avila good, but with nothing colder than he’s accustomed to.

“I take ice baths every day,” Avila said, when asked how cold the water felt.

He doesn’t usually, however, take them at 4:02 p.m., which was upside-down time for the cooler.

The Tigers had every reason to celebrate. The game had been tied since the fifth inning. Neither team had led by more than a run, and it’s not as if a ton of games separate the two in the wild-card race.

If the Yankees had won, the margin between the two would have been one game.

And even with the Tigers taking two of the three games in the series, the difference is just three games.

But before the Tigers got dressed and faced the reality of what’s next — four games in three relentless days in Chicago — they gave themselves a few moments to enjoy the victory.

Victor Martinez spoke about the double that led off the bottom of the ninth, and how demonstrative he was when he reached second.

“It was a big chance for us to win this game,” he said. “I was pumped up.”

Bryan Holaday talked about pinch-running for Martinez and how good it felt to cross the plate with the winning run.

“Two outs, so I just took off,” he said. “I knew, from the cheer I heard, what happened.”

Kyle Lobstein spoke about pitching well in his first major-league start (one earned run allowed in six innings), about the early nerves he felt — and even about being optioned back to Toledo after the game.

Lobstein understood the Tigers needed the roster spot for a relief pitcher, which is how they filled it, and that he will soon be back up.

In fact, they’re filling it with Evan Reed, over his legal problems and back with the Tigers.

Manager Brad Ausmus spoke about the long drive to right by Brian McCann in the top of the ninth that would have given the Yankees a 5-2 lead if it had stayed fair, but hooked foul instead.

“From where I was standing, you could tell it was hooking,” Ausmus said. “Pretty quickly off the bat, you could tell it was going foul.”

But not by much.

On the mound, Phil Coke was twisting and turning, as if body English would help. After the ball landed foul, Coke blew McCann away with two fastballs.

And maybe it did.

“Momentum shifts are big in baseball,” Ausmus said in his understated way. “They’re not very tangible or something you can put a statistic on, but they’re very important.

“That was a big out.”

Torii Hunter, not playing the outfield in this game, but knowing how helpless a right fielder can feel while watching the trajectory of a long fly ball, said he was in the dugout trying to “blow that ball foul.”

And one other Tigers player was talkative in the clubhouse after the game: Joba Chamberlain summing up the last regular-season series Derek Jeter had just played in Detroit and how strange it will seem to see someone else at short for the Yankees.

“It was weird thinking it might be the last time I see him in person on a baseball field,” Chamberlain said.

But, again, while it was a dramatic victory, it was one victory, and the Tigers have a lot of work to do in what must now be officially called the pennant race.

It doesn’t begin with the next game in Chicago. To Avila, it merely resumes.

“You say every game matters, but for me after the All-Star break, that’s when the extra concentration really has to kick in,” Avila said. “Getting a game-winning hit, especially this time of the year, it’s what you play for.”