Cleveland Indians fans will surely disagree, but Alex Avila provided a moment that baseball needed Monday night at Progressive Field.
Earlier in the day, all of the talk and attention concerning Major League Baseball had to do with the suspensions that were issued to 12 players for taking performance-enhancing drugs supplied to them by the Biogenesis clinic in Miami. Not included among that group, of course, was Alex Rodriguez, who seized the majority of attention by appealing his suspension and holding a press conference before the Yankees game with the White Sox.
With a PED scandal taking place off the field and bringing embarrassment to the sport, baseball needed something good to happen on the field. A-Rod playing his first game of the season for the Yankees didn't qualify (especially when the Yanks lost 8-1). Perhaps the Rangers (who lost outfielder Nelson Cruz to suspension) beating the Angels, 5-2, was a cathartic moment for that team.
Yet Avila's three-run homer in the ninth inning off Indians closer Chris Perez was the sort of highlight that reminded us why baseball can be so fun to watch, why the game is bigger than those that try to beat it, why what happens on the field continues to thrill us when a cloud of bad news and disgrace hangs over the sport.
Is that overselling the moment? Well, maybe just a bit.
But watch the video of the Tigers celebrating Avila's home run — which turned a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead — and you get quite a contrast to A-Rod attempting to portray himself as the wrongly persecuted victim during his press conference. There was nothing manufactured or contrived about the celebration in the Detroit dugout as Avila rounded the bases. That was pure emotion.
We all know that one moment does not decide a pennant race. The season is simply too long, with teams riding several peaks and valleys over the 162-game schedule.
But it sure looked as if the Tigers landed a decisive blow in their battle with the Indians for the AL Central lead. That was a demoralizing loss, wiping out an excellent start from Corey Kluber. The 27-year-old right-hander held Detroit's fearsome lineup scoreless for 7.1 innings, continuing what's been a strong season for him in his first year as a full-time starter.
How Cleveland recovers from this setback in the final two games of this series could go a long way toward determining who wins the division (and one of the AL wild-card bids). But Terry Francona's team appears to be playing too well to be sidetracked by one bad loss, no matter how much it might sting.
The Tribe came into this series trailing Detroit by three games in the AL Central. A sweep would have pushed Cleveland into a first-place tie in early August and presented a viable challenge to a Tigers team that just lost Jhonny Peralta to a 50-game PED suspension and hasn't had Miguel Cabrera in the lineup for seven of its past 10 games.
Detroit had won eight in a row going into Monday night, however. Yes, those wins came at the expense of the Phillies, Nationals and White Sox — all of whom are struggling. This may be a soft part of the schedule for the Tigers, but they're capitalizing on that break by defeating the teams they should beat.
The Tigers have had to win all the games they can to keep the surging Indians and Kansas City Royals at a distance. Cleveland had won 10 of its past 11 games, while the Royals had won 11 of 12 before Monday night's play began. Yet neither team has been able to gain much ground on Detroit in the division standings.
Part of Detroit's success has been due to unexpected contributions from players like Avila. Looking at his numbers, you can tell it's been a rough season for the Tigers catcher. Going 1-for-4 on Monday nudged his batting average up to .199 and his OPS up to .642. He's been nowhere near the player who broke out as an All-Star with 19 homers, 82 RBI and an .895 OPS.
Yet perhaps it's not a total coincidence that the Tigers went 18-8 in July while Avila had his best month of the season, batting .269. This is what happens with good teams. When some players slump (for example, Prince Fielder hit .228 in July) or fall slightly short of spectacular (Miguel Cabrera batted .288 for the month, though still posted a 1.028 OPS), others emerge to pick up the slack.
With at least 50 games remaining in the season, the Indians have plenty of opportunity to overtake the Tigers in the AL Central or seize one of the wild-card playoff spots. Though Cleveland's 3-10 record against Detroit thus far has to be discouraging, the Tribe has made the AL Central race matter. (The Royals should have something to say about that as well, considering how well they've played recently. They also have 10 games left to play versus the Tigers.) If it didn't matter, the Tigers players wouldn't have reacted to Avila's home run the way they did.
Competitions like the ones taking place in each of the AL's three divisions, in addition to the NL Central, are why embarrassments like the Biogenesis scandal won't keep baseball down. We still have those moments that make us pump our fists or cover our faces as fans. We feel the thrill of a big win or the pain of a bad loss. No matter how much PEDs and Bud Selig want to play the role of big, bad buzzkill, the game — and those who play it — are too much fun to ignore.