Bad bunt, good bat in Tigers’ loss to Indians

DETROIT — After Wednesday’s 3-2 Detroit Tigers loss to the Cleveland Indians, there are two very clear assumptions to be made:

First, the Tigers won’t win many close games when Torii Hunter is called upon to bunt. Second, they will claim a good many victories should Alex Avila continue to swing the bat like he did against the Indians.

Hunter can accomplish just about anything on a baseball field, except bunt. But that’s what Detroit manager Brad Ausmus asked him to do with runners on first and second and nobody out in the eighth inning.

Hunter fouled off the first pitch and missed the second one. He was allowed to swing away with two strikes, but hit into a double play.

"I come to win," Hunter said. "My manager tells me to do something, and I should be able to do it. I didn’t and that’s probably why we lost today."

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Hunter remembers successfully completing just one sacrifice bunt during the last 10 years — he’s actually had four during the previous two seasons. Even so, he’s had only six sacrifice bunts in 2,100 games over 18 seasons.

Ausmus was asked if he knew about Hunter’s extremely limited track record of successful bunts.

"I talked to him about it before he went up," Ausmus said, "and he went up and he was on board. … You are not always going to be successful bunting."

Hunter admitted that there’s "no doubt" he would have loved to be swinging away.

"I’ve driven in some runs," he said.

But Hunter quickly added that he was "the employee" and failed at his mission.

It was one missed opportunity that received the bulk of the post-game emphasis from reporters. However, it resulted in only one lost game.

If, on the other hand, Avila — who lined a single and double in his final two at-bats — can get going from here, it will impact many games.

"For us to be a really good offensive team, Alex is going to have to be a part of that," Ausmus said.

Back in spring training, Ausmus emphasized how much he needs Avila and center fielder Austin Jackson — both coming off weak hitting seasons — to contribute up to their capabilities.

Jackson, with a balanced swing and extreme confidence, has never looked better. He’s batting .310 with a .524 slugging percentage while holding down the No. 5 spot in the lineup.

But Avila was batting .130 entering the game, with neither an extra-base hit nor an RBI. He’s also struck out 15 times — four more than anybody else on the team — while drifting down to seventh in the batting order.

Avila, after walking in the second inning, took a called strike on the first pitch he saw in the fourth.

"C’mon, Avila!" shouted a leather-lunged fan behind home plate. "Swing the bat!"

The rap on Avila is that he takes too many pitches, but nobody had a problem with that approach in 2011, when he walked 73 times and had a .389 on-base percentage.

That seemed like ancient history, though, when Avila struck out against Indians starter Zach McAllister, stranding runners on first and third for the final out of the fourth.

It had dropped to 36 degrees late in the game, and it was tough to compete effectively.

But Avila singled in the seventh, then drove a one-out double into the gap in right-center off closer John Axford in the ninth. When center fielder Michael Bourn bobbled the ball, Avila took off for third and made it by never breaking stride.

"He looked good," Ausmus said. "We might see some contact from him."

It felt good for Avila.

"Yeah, it feels good," he said. "But it’s still early. One day, you can be hitting .270, and the next day be .170."

He noted that his "swing was not any different" and that several hitters are experiencing timing difficulties because of two rainouts and four scheduled off days in the first two weeks of the season.

Avila knocked in 82 runs back in 2011, but has only 95 RBIs since. He batted .295 with 33 doubles, four triples and 19 homers three years ago. He also won the Silver Slugger Award as the best hitter at his position and was the starting catcher in the All-Star Game.

That — or something close to it — is what Ausmus wants to see once again.