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Tigers' Avila standing tall at first base, plate

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Alex Avila has made nine of his 25 appearances this season at first base for the Tigers.

Detroit — Alex Avila isn’t a one-trick pony.

He’s not just a catcher and has added playing first base to the resume. While that’s nothing new, his red-hot batting average (.382 entering Sunday’s game) and expanded versatility is making it tough to keep him out of the lineup.

And sometimes, because of rest or injury to Miguel Cabrera, that means deploying Avila at first base, where he’s made nine of his 25 appearances this season. In another 12 games, he’s been behind the plate; the remaining four were in pinch-hit roles.

The offense is coming a little easier, as he has a better eye at the plate due in part to better health.

“He’s attacking the ball in the zone more. He’s never really gone outside the zone, but at times, would get conservative in the zone and he’s using the left side of the field more often,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “(His health) is definitely a factor. The concussions were a factor and now we’re a couple years removed from the last one.”

It’s the opposite-field power that seems to be raising some eyebrows as Avila went 3-for-3 with a double and a home run on Saturday. He’s tops in the majors in batting average among players with at least 50 at-bats, which ranks as a bit of a surprise given his pedestrian .222 average over the last five years.

Avila attributes the increases to seeing the ball a little better and just taking what the pitchers are giving him.

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“There were times where I pulled the ball quite a bit but that was because of the way teams were pitching me or I didn’t have legs underneath me,” he said. “I’ve been healthy and trying to hit the ball where it’s pitched, looking for it in that zone and put a pretty good swing on it.

“I’ve never had an issue (with walks). I’ve always been able to find my way on base, but that’s been my approach my entire life: Swing at a strike.”

The bigger adjustment for Avila, though, comes on the defensive end at first base, where he’s still getting used to seeing the field from a different vantage point — and standing up.

Playing first base means more time on his feet and a different set of responsibilities with each pitch. The hardest part is using a different set of muscles than he’s used in college and in the first eight years of his career in the majors behind the plate.

“I’m actually more sore after playing first than catching. I’m used to squatting — I’d rather squat than stand,” Avila said. “(Using muscles you don’t normally use) is exactly what it is. It’s funny but I train in a squatting position.

“During a game, when you’re playing first, you’re standing and then with each pitch, you’re taking two steps and getting ready for a ball. Usually after a game, I’m sore because I usually don’t do that very often.”

Avila said the most pain comes from his hamstrings and lower back, but it’s nothing he can’t bear, especially with some more reps. Those might be harder to come on a regular basis as Cabrera gets back to health, leaving fewer opportunities for Avila to play at first base.

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Nearing full strength

The Tigers have had their share of injuries and other issues this season, but they’re starting to get back to full strength with the roster.

Ausmus expects to have designated hitter Victor Martinez (paternity leave) back in the lineup for the series against the Astros beginning Monday night. Cabrera missed a couple of games because of an oblique injury and J.D. Martinez’s return has jump-started the offense.

“We want to have our whole team on the field. Injuries are no fun; they’re part of the game,” second baseman Ian Kinsler said. “You want to have your whole team on the field. You feel that gives you the best chance to win games. We’re excited to have everybody back.”

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard