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Avila's 'rewarding' night lifts Tigers

Avila's 'rewarding' night lifts Tigers

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DETROIT -- This is why Alex Avila was excited about being a catcher.

He didn't move behind the plate full-time until his final season at the University of Alabama. He liked the idea of playing a position where he could be involved in every play.

So Friday night, as he thought back on a 10-8 Tigers win that included his first Major League home run, four RBIs and 189 pitches caught in a game that wasn't safe until the last pitch, Avila had a pretty good feeling about his second day at work.

"It's pretty rewarding," Avila said. "When you can put a game together like that, and it's such a close-knit game, especially in the situation against the Twins and us being in first place, it's a big win. The feeling you get, that's why we keep playing. We want to keep winning. It's a great feeling."

It wasn't easy, but it was a win. And as much as the Tigers can swing from highs to lows, they keep winning when they have to.

Friday's win expanded Detroit's gap with third-place Minnesota to 5 1/2 games in the American League Central, the Twins' largest deficit since May 22 and tied for the largest of the season. A White Sox loss to the Indians moved the Tigers three games up on second-place Chicago.

"We got through it," manager Jim Leyland said of Friday's game. "That's the important thing."

In that respect, the six-run first inning was really important. A combination of two home runs and a controversial rundown proved crucial.

Anthony Swarzak had been relatively solid since taking injured Kevin Slowey's place in the Twins rotation, but the Tigers made his Detroit debut more like a cameo appearance. Six of their first seven hitters reached base safely, starting with back-to-back singles and continuing with mayhem on the basepaths once Clete Thomas' grounder to third caught Curtis Granderson too far from the bag.

Third baseman Brendan Harris immediately threw home to catcher Joe Mauer, who chased Granderson back towards third before throwing to Harris. Granderson dug in his cleats and stopped as Harris came towards him, then took off for home as Harris lunged at his heels.

"He got the bottom of my cleat," Granderson said after the game. "I didn't hear anything, so I kept going. If they call me out, they call me out."

They didn't, much to Harris' shock as Granderson kept going home. After a lengthy argument to no avail, Swarzak fell behind on Miguel Cabrera, who got a green light to swing on a 3-0 pitch for at least the second time in as many weeks.

The resulting blast to right field went out on a line. It was Cabrera's 197th career homer, and 22nd this year, but his first on a 3-0 pitch.

"We ordered him one tonight," Leyland said.

Four batters and two hits later, it was Avila's turn. After going eight pitches in each of his first two Major League at-bats, he jumped on Swarzak's first-pitch fastball and took it deep to right for a 6-0 lead.

The hugs in the Tigers' front-office box from Thursday's big league debut continued for his father, team vice president Al Avila.

"Pretty unbelievable," Alex Avila said. "I just saw the replay, and I didn't realize how far in that ball was. It was just something that I just kind of reacted. Right off the bat, I knew it was going to be a home run. When I got back in the dugout and everybody was teasing me, I sat back and thought, 'Man.'"

They were teasing him that it must feel pretty easy to hit, after two hits in his Major League debut Thursday. After his two-out bouncer snuck just inside the first-base line and continued in right field for a two-out, two-run double in the fifth, the teasing grew louder.

The Tigers knew Avila could hit; it was a big reason why he was a fifth-round pick in last summer's First-Year Player Draft. Catching was more of a project, or a "crash course" in Avila's words.

While Armando Galarraga (6-10) earned his first win since June 30, it was a struggle with four runs in his first two innings, three of them to Mauer alone with a first-inning solo homer and a second-inning two-run single.

Leyland admitted when asked that he does have "concerns" about Galarraga. It was the job of Galarraga and Avila to work through them.

"He didn't have his best stuff today, and he battled," Avila said. "I mean, he was a bulldog out there. He knew he didn't have his best stuff, but he knew he had to at least give us five good innings and keep us in the ballgame, which he did. He just found a way to throw enough strikes to get the win."

It was a win in question until Fernando Rodney struck out Orlando Cabrera with the potential tying run on first. But it was, without question, rewarding for Avila. As Mauer stepped to the plate for the second time, he congratulated Avila on his homer.

Mauer was one of the catchers Avila tried to model himself after when he converted.

"The last two days have been a blast for me," Avila said.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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