Avila ends ‘storybook’ ninth with walk-off hit

Alex Avila celebrates after hitting the game winning RBI single in the ninth inning.

Rick Osentoski

DETROIT — The ninth inning was baseball poetry at its best.

It was about heroes, and almost about villains.

It was about standing ovations for an opposing player and would-be homers hooking foul. It was about an off-the-wall single that won the game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and an ice bucket challenge that had nothing to do with a charity cause.

And for the Detroit Tigers, it was about a 3-2 win over the New York Yankees at Comerica Park that allowed them to win a series of three games or more at home for only the second time since the Fourth of July.

If you skipped work on Thursday afternoon to take the kids to one last game before school starts, you got a memory to savor no matter how this season ends for the Tigers.

The top of the ninth began with Derek Jeter striding toward the batter’s box for likely the last time in his home state. The 42,647 fans, most wearing the Olde English D and some in Yankee pinstripes, rose to their feet to give the pride of Kalamazoo his second standing ovation of the game.

Jeter did nothing to acknowledge what was happening.

"I was aware of the situation," Jeter said, "but also aware of the situation of the game."

The score was tied and he was trying to ignite the go-ahead rally.

Joba Chamberlain, his old teammate and good friend, got ahead in the count, 1-2, and got Jeter to ground out weakly to shortstop Eugenio Suarez. Again, the fans stood and cheered.

"It speaks volumes for what he’s done for this game," Chamberlain said. "You can’t put it into words…It was weird getting him out, knowing I’m not going to see him live again on a baseball field playing this game. He’s an unbelievable player, an unbelievable man, an unbelievable friend."

Chamberlain, who had a nasty slider working, got Martin Prado to fly out to right. But then he walked Mark Teixeira with two outs, and Tigers manager Brad Ausmus summoned lefty Phil Coke to face switch-hitting Carlos Beltran.

Beltran singled to move Teixeira to third base with the go-ahead run, and there was an uneasy feeling as seven-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann came to the plate.

The left-handed hitting McCann pulled the first pitch down the line, and it had plenty of distance. But would it stay fair?

"I found myself blowing the ball foul the other way," said Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter. "I said, ‘Go foul! Go foul!’ And it hooked at the end."

Ausmus said, "The McCann at-bat was the turning point. He was six feet away from a three-run homer."

But Coke struck him out swinging.

After the game, Coke chose not to talk with reporters. Who knows why? Maybe he didn’t want to field the hero-or-goat questions. But there was no doubting that he came very close to being one rather than the other.

Victor Martinez led off the bottom of the ninth against hard-throwing reliever Shawn Kelley, and drilled a double into the same right field corner where McCann’s shot went foul. Martinez popped up from his slide and slapped his hands.

Bryan Holaday trotted to second base to pinch-run while Martinez jogged off to applause. And then J.D. Martinez worked a walk.

Ausmus said he opted not to have Nick Castellanos bunt because he hadn’t dropped down a successful one all year, adding that 95 mph pitchers aren’t easy to bunt, either. Castellanos ended up taking an excellent pitch by Kelley for a called third strike in a full count.

Torii Hunter was called upon the pinch hit for Don Kelly, and his aggressive swings told you how much he wanted to end it. But he struck out swinging, too.

So, it was up to Alex Avila, who had knocked in only two runs in his last 11 games.

Avila came up big-time, though. The gritty catcher hit a shot off the Jimmy John’s sign near the 365-foot marker in right-center field that right fielder Ichiro Suzuki couldn’t get, and the game was over as Holaday raced home.

What were Avila’s emotions at that instant?

"That’s as high as you can get," said Avila, beaming for joy while surrounded by reporters in the clubhouse. "To get a game-winning hit — especially at this time of the year — that’s what we play for."

Avila was mobbed by his teammates near the mound, and then stopped in front of the dugout to be interviewed by FOX Sports Detroit’s Shannon Hogan. But then he made his only mistake of the ninth inning. Avila turned his back on teammates J.D. Martinez and Castellanos, who came from behind to douse him and Hogan with a huge bucket of ice water.

"We got him," Martinez said. "That’s what he gets for a hit like that. It comes with the territory."

Castellanos added, "Alex did a good job of picking me and Torii up, no doubt."

Hunter agreed.

"It was a storybook ending," Hunter said. "All that happened, and in the end we came through with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. And Alex Avila hit a ball past Ichiro, who is a pretty good outfielder.

"A storybook ending — that’s what it was."