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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to return to the top of the American League Central.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Avila says he's not hurting, but no question he's struggling

It might be convoluted thinking, but it seems like the quieter Alex Avila gets, the more likely you are to think something’s wrong with him.

No, it’s not so much that the Tigers’ starting catcher is a overly talkative, a jabbermouth — that might be a description that better fits his backup, Gerald Laird — but it just seems like Avila might be the last player on the team to cry wolf.

No one knew how much pain he played through at the end of last regular season, and into the playoffs, suffering from tendinitis in both knees.

No one knew, because he never said anything to anyone.

And with Avila slumping again, as a season winds down, it’s only logical to think it might be injuries piling up on him again.

After his batting average peaked at .267 in mid-August, he’s had just five hits since, batting just .102 with 19 strikeouts in his last 16 appearances, as his average slid to .241.

Would he say if his knees were hurting?

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Avila said, after going 0-for-4 at the plate, including the game’s final out. “Just not getting hits. I mean, it’s the way it is. I wish I had an answer for you. If I had an answer then you wouldn’t be asking me that question. Just gotta keep battling.”

There’s no question he does that.

Just look at his torrid month of August last season, when he played in all but two games, hit .360, and bashed seven of his 19 home runs.

It was also probably the month that cost him any chance of being effective in the playoffs.

That ability to keep battling through pain is a trait that his teammates admire him for.

“You talk about getting beat up ... a lot of people don’t see what goes on behind the scenes, just for him to go out and play, he’s really got to go through a lot. He really goes through a lot out there as a catcher. Just the grind of playing every day. I think he’s garnered all our respect, all our admiration for what he’s been able to do. He never complains,” the Tigers’ ace, Justin Verlander, said in an appearance on “Ripken Baseball” on XM Radio late last month.

“And really, he’s gotten better and better as a catcher since Day One, since being here, and that’s not easy to do, to learn on the fly at this level. He really tries, and works hard. Obviously had a stellar season last year, and I think he’s probably a little disappointed with what’s gone on this year, but hey, he’s still trying to do what he can and help us win. We all love him, and enjoy having him as a teammate.”

The diagnosis at the end of last season was that his knees just needed rest — rather than surgery — to get back up to snuff. It appeared that had worked early in the season, but the left knee flared up midseason, requiring an MRI in late June to check things out.

Manager Jim Leyland knew the knee was bothering him so the Tigers were watching things closely, and didn’t want to risk anything, long-term.

Everything turned out fine, taking a huge weight off Avila’s shoulders.

“After I had the MRI in Texas, and basically started taking anti-inflammatories, going through a treatment plan, just to knock out the inflammation, knock out some of the pain, ever since then, I’ve felt good,” Avila said in mid-August, admitting the positive recheck had a psychological impact on him.

“It’s huge. It’s a big weight off my shoulders, constantly thinking about how hurt I was, or if I’m doing any damage that would hurt me for the rest of my career or anything. Once they told me I wasn’t — the doctor told me my knee looked great, as far as my ligaments — barring any freak injury, I should be catching for a long, long time. That was definitely a weight off my shoulders, and made me feel pretty good.”

It showed, too.

He hit a respectable .278 in the two weeks leading up to the All-Star break.

It helped, too, that he was just a spectator for the game this time around, after earning a starting slot last year on the strength of the fan voting.

He has played quite a bit less this time around, as well, given a couple of stints with injuries, as well as the presence of Laird, who’s started 41 of the Tigers’ 134 games.

At this point last year, Avila had caught in 111 games. This year, he’s started 89.

The extra rest hasn’t translated into sustained success at the plate, though.

That’s the part that’s perplexing.

Avila may say he feels fine — and he may — but he doesn’t LOOK like he feels fine.

He hasn’t had a hit

“He’s struggling. That’s putting it mildly. I don’t know if that answers your question. He hit extra. I’m not going to get into all that, because we’re just repetitive when we come to that. He hit extra yesterday, tried to get some extra swings and get some things ironed out,” Leyland said after Monday’s game. “He wasn’t playing yesterday, so he got extra hitting with Mac (hitting coach Lloyd McClendon). It is what it is. That’s the way it is. He’s struggling right now.”


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