By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – The Detroit Tigers have sprinted out to a 9-3 start to the second half of the season, and the players who have produced at a similarly torrid pace in that span are not the ones people might expect.
Superstar Miguel Cabrera has missed six games, plus been taken out of a few earlier. Slugger Prince Fielder is batting just .222, and leadoff man Austin Jackson, who been hitting .291 since coming off the disabled list June 14, has a .255 batting average in the first 12 games since the break.
Instead, two of the most maligned members of the lineup and the bullpen over the first half have stepped it up – relief pitcher Phil Coke and catcher Alex Avila.
When asked on 97.1 The Ticket during the All-Star break what position he most wanted more production from, Tigers manager Jim Leyland answered without hesitation – catcher.
Through 58 games he played in over the first half, Avila had 35 hits, six home runs and 21 RBIs. It all added up to a miserable batting average of .177, with an on-base percentage of .279.
In the month of July, his numbers improved immensely. Over that span, he hit .269 with a .355 OBP.
Avila had been particularly productive since the All-Star break, with 11 hits in the nine games he has played in since then. In that time span he has two home runs and 11 RBIs. His batting average since the break is .344 with an on-base percentage of .400.
Although nine games is just a tiny sample size compared to the 162-game season, Avila’s recent performance is an encouraging sign, particularly for someone who struggled so mightily in the first half.
“Alex can hit,” Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander said. “It’s just a matter of time and confidence and seeing the ball good. You saw him start the All-Star Game a few years ago and hit .300 with a bunch of homers and a bunch of [RBIs], so you know he can do it. He can perform at this level. When you know a guy can, it’s more of a ‘when’ instead of a ‘what if.'”
Another troubled first-half player was relief pitcher Phil Coke, whose ERA through 30 appearances was 5.83. Coke never worked more than one inning at a time in June but allowed six runs in 10 appearances that month.
After the break, Tigers manager Jim Leyland used Coke somewhat sparingly, trotting the reliever out for just two-thirds of an inning, one-third of an inning and zero-plus innings, respectively, in his first three second-half outings. In two of those starts, Coke faced just one batter before being taken out of the game. His last two appearances, however, Coke has faced the minimum. His ERA over his limited play since the All-Star break is 0.00.
“The adjustment that I made that finally feels the best has been what I’ve been working with, and I feel very strong, very fluid,” Coke said. “It’s going to be fun.”
“When you’re physically comfortable and feel able, it makes all the world of difference,” Coke continued. “Instead of feeling like you’re constantly searching or fighting yourself, suddenly things are free and easy. It changes the whole dynamic of your mindset and what you’re feeling.”
The enhanced contributions of Avila and Coke, along with so many others on the team, have paid dividends. Detroit’s 9-3 record since the All-Star break also encompasses a 5-0 mark in the Tigers’ recent stretch at Comerica.
“So far in this home stand we just caught a couple really good teams that have been struggling a little bit,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “I hate to repeat myself, but it goes back to what I talk about a lot of times. It’s not who you’re playing, sometimes, it’s when you’re playing them, and we caught a couple teams at the right time, and we did very well.”