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Getting Avila hot is crucial for Tigers' lineup

DETROIT -- The Tigers returned to the comforts of their American League lineup Wednesday, designated-hitter spot and all, which meant moves up in the order for Ian Kinsler, Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. It did nothing for catcher Alex Avila, who remains in the seventh spot as he tries to work his way out of his rough start.

It's nothing new for Avila, who hit .183 (13-for-71) last April on his way to a .177 first half, and .220 (13-for-59) in April 2012. At 3-for-23 with 14 strikeouts, though, it's a rougher start than he had through eight games of those previous seasons.

The slump has countered what manager Brad Ausmus said has been an excellent effort behind the plate, notably in terms of calling games.

"He's done an excellent job behind the plate calling the game. He's a smart catcher," Ausmus said. "That's hugely important at the Major League level, especially over the long haul. He's scuffled a little bit with the bat.

"He's obviously a much better hitter than he's shown so far, so we're hoping he can snap back into some better at-bats. But his defense, really his game-calling, has been outstanding."

Avila's approach has been somewhat different, even if the numbers so far are similar. He has been more aggressive at the plate early in counts, swinging at 14 out of 30 first pitches, according to STATS. He has put just five of those pitches in play, though, resulting in two of his hits, two outs and a sacrifice bunt.

It's a small sample size, but Avila's rate for previous seasons has been about a third or less.

Ausmus said aggressiveness has to be situational.

"There's times to be aggressive," he said, "and there's times to be a little bit more passive. With men on base, men in scoring position, that's obviously a time to be more aggressive, because it might be the one pitch you get to drive and drive the runner in. But it varies from at-bat to at-bat. There are other times you prefer hitters to be more selective."

Avila's drop to the seventh spot in recent days coincides with the rise of Nick Castellanos. When the season began, Ausmus didn't want to put his rookie third baseman in a high-pressure spot, keeping him more in the bottom third of the lineup.

"I don't want to throw Nick in the heart of the lineup," Ausmus said, "but I just think Nick's handled himself pretty well, so I don't feel as uncomfortable putting him in the sixth spot."

There's a vested interest in getting Avila's offense turnaround, beyond simply getting production out of the catcher's spot. Avila's slump coincides with the Tigers' struggles with a righty-lefty balance in their lineup. The only other left-handed batter in Wednesday's lineup was switch-hitting designated hitter Martinez.

The Tigers have left-handed bats on their bench, including Don Kelly and Tyler Collins, but an Avila turnaround would by far have a greater impact on the lineup.

"He would be a huge asset if we could get Alex hot with the bat," Ausmus said. "He will get hot with the bat at some point. We're hoping it's sooner than later, though we have a stretch I think of five lefties in six days coming up pitching against us. …

"He's important offensively. As much as the defense of the catcher and the game-calling of the catcher adds to the team's success, we need Alex to swing the bat."

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.
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