Bench players seek tricks to stay fresh

Tigers give Romine, Avila first starts of season

Bench players seek tricks to stay fresh

DETROIT -- Omar Infante couldn't crack the Tigers' roster for a bench spot. He still made a contribution when rookie infielder Dixon Machado sought out advice for the age-old conundrum: How does a bench player who doesn't play often keep fresh for when he actually does?

"I asked him for advice the last day," Machado said, "and he said to just practice at all the positions with a lot of intensity, like throw hard to first and get to the ball as quickly as in the game, and hit the same, swing hard. He said that if you do everything slow, when you get to play, everything's going to be too fast. That's my plan."

Infante should know. He earned an All-Star selection as a super utility player in 2010.

Some guys can play for years without figuring it out. Andrew Romine had a fairly impressive Spring Training, batting .300 (21-for-70) with eight extra-base hits and an .801 OPS. But before his first start of the season in Sunday's 7-5 loss to the Red Sox, he admitted he doesn't have a set answer for how to carry that over into the regular season with limited at-bats.

It's a two-part equation. While players have to find the right amount of work in batting practice and in the cage to maintain their swing, managers also have to find enough playing time to keep their reserves fresh in case they need them for regular at-bats later. Jim Leyland prided himself on that during his Tigers tenure, turning super utility player Don Kelly into a local hero, and Brad Ausmus has tried to carry that on. He started Romine in center field and Avila behind the plate Sunday against the Red Sox, the first start of the season for both.

Avila's two-out RBI double

The weather this week has ruled out any risk of fatigue, postponing Opening Day in Chicago and washing out another game in that series. Beyond that, the center-field job that might have been a platoon at one point has leaned in rookie JaCoby Jones' direction early with his standout play, leaving Romine in reserve.

James McCann, too, is set to garner the balance of the playing time behind the plate, with Avila set to spell him against tough right-handers rather than platoon. Righty and reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello started on Sunday for Boston.

"I can tell you from personal experience, catching 150 games is tough on a catcher," Ausmus said. "You lose your legs, and then that really affects your hitting. To me, 130-135 games for a starting catcher is plenty."

Machado is a particularly tricky spot for Ausmus, because Romine plays so many of the same positions. Machado made the team in part because he's out of Minor League options and the Tigers see him as part of their infield of the future. In the present, though, he's behind an ironman second baseman in Ian Kinsler, as well as a Gold Glove Award finalist at short in Jose Iglesias and a veteran utility player in Romine. But at age 25, Machado can't develop while he's sitting on the bench.

"We do have to get him in there, because he can't just sit there idly," Ausmus said. "Ideally, you don't want to be getting blown out to get him in a game. He's going to get a start here in the next few days."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.