Avila's clutch blast helps Tigers hold division lead

Catcher goes yard in eighth to keep Detroit on top by half-game

Avila's clutch blast helps Tigers hold division lead

DETROIT -- On "Star Wars Night" at Comerica Park, Alex Avila used the force.

The Tigers were in serious trouble on Saturday night, trailing the Indians by a run in the eighth with two outs. The out-of-town scoreboard showed the Royals had already taken care of business against the Red Sox, meaning Detroit needed a win to stay in first place of the American League Central. Avila's two-run homer to right off Bryan Shaw gave the Tigers a 5-4 win, assuring they'd remain all alone in the top spot for at least one more day.

"I know he's hitting about .220," Detroit manager Brad Ausmus said, "but he has the ability to hit a home run. Home runs can be game changers, as we saw tonight."

Indeed, the clutch hits are not rarities for Avila. On Aug. 28, he drove one off the right-field wall to walk off against the Yankees.

After a nasty cut fastball on the first pitch of the at-bat, Avila received from Shaw what he called a "steady diet of curveballs." Avila's mindset changed when the baserunner, Ezequiel Carrera, stole second, allowing a base hit to tie the game. He shortened his swing, but he guessed right on yet another curveball and he caught it up in the zone.

The game-winning homer was Avila's third go-ahead blast in the eighth or later since last August against Cleveland. In May, Avila hit a 13th-inning solo shot off Josh Tomlin, though the Tigers lost that game in the bottom of the inning.

Closer Joe Nathan assured they wouldn't let Avila's blast go to waste this time -- not with the Royals gaining ground and the Indians on the verge of climbing back into the playoff race. Nathan, who has had a tumultuous year in the closer role, allowed a leadoff walk, but he retired the next three batters in order to end the game.

It wasn't that easy, though. The last batter, David Murphy, sliced one down the left-field line that barely ended up foul. Nathan thought he'd blown the save.

"My heart just dropped," Nathan said.

Earlier in the night, Detroit starter Kyle Lobstein was a strike away from giving the Tigers all they could have possibly asked for from a rookie in September -- five solid innings with minimal damage.

The left-hander had recovered nicely from Michael Brantley's first-inning two-run homer, retiring nine of the next 10 batters he faced. But Mike Aviles sliced a two-run double into the right-field corner to put the Indians ahead with two outs in the fifth. He exited the game after just five innings, his shortest outing yet, and he allowed a season-high four runs.

"He was fine," Ausmus said of Lobstein. "He wasn't as much down in the zone as he had been in his previous starts."

In the third, Detroit leveled the score by pulverizing fastballs from Cleveland starter Danny Salazar. Ian Kinsler singled home a run and Torii Hunter tied it with a sacrifice fly. The inning held more promise, with Miguel Cabrera at the plate, but Kinsler was picked off of first to end the threat.

Victor Martinez continued his meticulous torture of his former team by going deep against the Indians for the seventh time this season in the fourth inning. The solo shot, Martinez's 31st of the year, put Detroit ahead, 3-2.

But Lobstein's night unraveled in a single pitch to Aviles. The Tigers left two runners stranded in scoring position in the fifth and sixth, and one more in the seventh.

Cleveland seemed poised to play add-on in the eighth, putting runners in scoring position after a weakly hit infield single by Carlos Santana. Yan Gomes hit a blooper to shallow right field, but the 39-year-old Hunter gave chase and came up with an impressive diving catch, saving a pair of runs.

Martinez had a chance for a second homer in the eighth. His fly ball to right died in the crisp Michigan air, but two batters later, Avila's kept carrying. He called the scene when he returned to the dugout "chaos."

Not as chaotic, though, as the AL Central, which the Tigers remain atop because of Avila.

"I don't care about the Royals, really," Hunter said. "I only care about what the Tigers are doing right now. Sometimes you keep looking back and you trip over a rock."

Matt Slovin is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.