DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 21: Alex Avila #13 of the Detroit Tigers celebrates the final out as he tags out Kosuke Fukudome #1 of the Cleveland Indians to end the game as the Tigers defeated the Indians 8-7 at Comerica Park on August 21, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Alex Avila's first trip to Yankee Stadium to open the season didn't go very well. He returns during the postseason as one of the Tigers' best players.
So much can change over the course of a baseball season.
Six months ago, Alex Avila started Opening Day for the Detroit Tigers against the New York Yankees. You could be excused if you don't remember this, but it didn't go well. Avila went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, looking completely overmatched against the Yankees' CC Sabathia.
Even worse was Avila's performance behind the plate. He had trouble blocking balls in the dirt. The boxscore said Tigers pitchers threw three wild pitches, but at least two of those throws could've been called passed balls. Avila also had trouble against basestealers, letting Russell Martin steal third base.
It was a rough day at the ballpark, maybe the worst of Avila's young career. And Tigers fans freaked out afterwards, questioning whether Avila was ready for the major leagues and calling for Victor Martinez to be the team's full-time catcher.
What a difference six months — and another 140 games played by Avila — makes.
Avila went on to have an outstanding season for the Tigers, breaking out to become the best catcher in baseball this year. He posted a slash average of .295/.389/.506 with 19 home runs and 82 RBIs. His .895 OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) was second on the team, behind only Miguel Cabrera.
On defense, Avila threw out 40 basestealers, tied for the highest total in the majors. He caught 32 percent (40-of-85) of runners trying to steal, the second-highest percentage in the American League (and fourth-highest in all of baseball).
He allowed only seven passed balls all season. Pretty impressive, considering how often Tigers pitchers like to throw breaking balls into the dirt. Avila was tagged with 56 wild pitches, the third-highest total among major league catchers. But if he could block those pitches, he did.
Did Avila continue to struggle against lefties, as he did with Sabathia? For the season, he hit .273/.349/.430 with three home runs and 17 RBIs in 148 plate appearances. And once Martinez couldn't be used at catcher later in the season, Avila was in the lineup regardless of who was pitching.
How did he do against the Yankees in the other five games he played against them. In six games total, Avila batted .263/.333/.632 with two homers and three RBIs. Take out that 0-for-4 from Opening Day, and Avila hit .333 (5-for-15) against Yankees pitching.
The baseball season has now come full circle. The Tigers and Yankees face each other again. And the stakes are obviously much higher.
Opening Day of the regular season didn't go so well for Avila versus the Yankees. But on Opening Day of the postseason, he has a chance to redeem himself.
Avila has justified every ounce of faith the Tigers put into him when they named him as the starting catcher. There aren't any more questions about whether or not Avila can be a full-time major league catcher. He can hit. He can handle tough pitches behind the plate. He can control an opponent's running game. He is firmly established at the position.
Will Avila face further scrutiny under the harsher lights of the playoffs? Probably, since this is his first postseason. With a bad series, some of the questions that plagued him at the beginning of the season could be asked again, even though he's earned the benefit of the doubt.
But it's hard to imagine the postseason could put Avila under any more pressure than he was under after that first regular season series. We've seen how he fought through that and emerged as a completely different player.
A national baseball audience was introduced to Avila when he started at catcher for the American League in the All-Star Game. The fans voting him in as a starter was perhaps the most surprising development of the All-Star process, though Avila was clearly the most deserving candidate at catcher. Winning the fan vote showed that people were looking at numbers and performance, not just going with a familiar name. Avila went on to show that he was no first-half fluke.
Here comes the national spotlight again. This time, these games really do count. And the Tigers will be on the biggest stage, playing the vaunted Yankees in prime time. Anyone who may have asked "Who is this guy?" during the All-Star Game will get another chance to see how integral a player he is to the Tigers' success. By the time the series ends, Avila may be as familiar — and appreciated — by baseball fans as he is by Tigers fans.