Avila blast lifts Tigers over Astros, 4-3

The smiles told the story.

When Tigers catcher Alex Avila stroked the two-run, ninth-inning homer that would make his team a 4-3 winner Friday night over the Astros in Houston, he raised his fist rounding first base and smiled. It was a look of both pure joy and relief.

April was a difficult month for Avila. He batted .183 and had to hold his head up while walking back to the dugout time and again after failing.

When he popped out on a bunt attempt Saturday in Detroit, he heard some pretty loud boos.

Friday, Avila slapped his hands together at second base, smiling even wider, then rounded third, slapping a low-five with third base coach Tom Brookens — and still smiling.

At home, Avila high-fived Don Kelly, who walked to open the inning and scored ahead of him, and grinned while they jogged to the dugout, where the high-fives were harder than after most homers. The smiles of his teammates were wider, too.

The eyes of Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Anibal Sanchez and Brayan Pena twinkled for their teammate. They knew how he’d been hurting, and their respect for him showed in their reactions. They couldn’t have been happier had they done it themselves.

“He just put a great swing on it,” Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez told Ryan Fields of FOX Sports Detroit. “It’s a great feeling (in the dugout). Everybody started smiling and yelling.”

The kind of teammate Avila is – a player to be counted upon in good times and bad – became evident in that moment. Avila was the starting All-Star Game catcher in 2011 and certainly is capable of dramatic moments like this one.

But his big hits have been few and far between since 2012, when his RBI total dropped from 82 to 48.

Avila nearly matched his RBIs for the 2013 on one swing. He’d had only three previous – each coming on a solo homer.

“A home run to put your team ahead – nothing gets better than that,” Avila said. “Obviously, I’ve been struggling a little bit, so that felt pretty good.”

He got ahead of Astros reliever Jose Veras with a 3-0 count, took a strike, then got the bat head out in front of the plate to crush the fastball he said he was looking for. It was down the middle, and Avila sent it rising over the wall in right center.

Avila is 3-for-10 in his last three games, with two homers and three RBIs.  Maybe, he’s turned the corner.

Now the challenge is maintenance of the aggressive approach that had been lacking on his part.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland says Avila takes too many pitches and needs to seize moments rather than letting them pass him by.

“Alex was struggling and got a big one when we needed it,” Leyland said after the game. “Hopefully, that will get some confidence going.”

Leyland said he “probably” would rest Avila on Saturday and start Pena. But Leyland wanted to think about it and sometimes changes his plans after a hitter has a big game.

Avila’s shot saw to it that Doug Fister’s fifth consecutive quality start wasn’t in vain, and that Drew Smyly’s relief heroics didn’t go to waste.

“(Avila) works his butt off back there every day,” Fister said. “It’s a huge thing for him to hit a big home run like that.”

Smyly came on with two on and nobody out after Fister allowed three runs in the seventh. And Smyly retired all six batters he faced to assure the game didn’t get away.

Smyly has a 1.35 ERA and has not been scored upon in his last 13 1/3 innings.

Jose Valverde made it 3 for 3 in save opportunities since his return with a scoreless ninth.

Then, when the Tigers went through their congratulation line on the infield when it was over, Cabrera playfully slapped Avila’s catcher’s mask askew on the top of his head.

Avila straightened the mask and smiled. He probably was smiling when his head hit the pillow.

TV UPDATE: Saturday’s Tigers game in Houston  (7:10 p.m.) will be on FOX Sports Detroit Plus with the Detroit Red Wings’ Stanley Cup playoff home opener against Anaheim carried on FOX Sports Detroit.