PITTSBURGH -- In three games since returning from the disabled list, Detroit catcher Alex Avila has one hit and three strikeouts in 10 at-bats.Not the best start for a guy manager Jim Leyland said the Tigers are relying on to hit the ball.
"I think that he's come back a little bit sluggish," Leyland said. "I think it does take a few days to get back into sync of this caliber [of] pitching. And I say sluggish, I'm talking about sluggish, offensively. I think the knee barks once in a while yet. But I think he'll be fine."An aggravated hamstring strain sent Avila to the DL on June 6, but his left knee is something that has bothered him for a while. He started playing again Thursday against St. Louis, which was also when he got his last hit. In eight plate appearances against the Pirates entering Sunday's finale, Avila had two strikeouts and two walks. "We need him to hit," Leyland said. "He's a good hitter. I don't know if this knee thing bothers him a little bit. Occasionally at the plate, he says it bothers him. You know, it flares up a little bit now and then. "But, he did just come off 15 days of rest."
Valverde plays catch, nearing return
PITTSBURGH -- Tigers fans hoping to see an appearance from closer Jose Valverde will likely have to wait at least until the team heads to Texas on Monday.Even if Valverde is available to pitch Sunday, manager Jim Leyland said he would probably insert Joaquin Benoit in the closer role, assuming Detroit finds itself in that situation. "The word I got yesterday was that the fastball seemed pretty good," Leyland said about Valverde, who played catch Saturday, four days after spraining his right wrist. "Still a little feeling on the split." Assuming Valverde is ready to go, Leyland said he would consider using the right-hander in a less stressful role than he's used to. Still, an outing against the Pirates seems unlikely. "I won't take any chances if it's not right," Leyland said. "I'm assuming tomorrow is going to be the day for him." Octavio Dotel, who threw two innings against the Pirates on Saturday, was not available to pitch Sunday. In addition to Benoit, other available relievers included Luis Marte, Phil Coke and Duane Below. Leyland said the status of Brayan Villarreal is uncertain. "We're a little short, but we've got the big guy," Leyland said, referring to Sunday starter Justin Verlander. "Hopefully, he'll step up."
Leyland's expectations for Verlander unchanged
PITTSBURGH -- When a team's offense has sputtered to the extent that Detroit's has recently, it's not uncommon for starting pitchers to talk about taking responsibility and hurling a gem to relieve some pressure from the other players in the lineup.But Tigers manager Jim Leyland called that "shop talk," saying pitchers don't think along those lines as much as it might seem.
Justin Verlander, Sunday's starter in Pittsburgh, has kept plenty of opponents off the scoreboard before, and he took a no-hitter into the ninth inning at home against the Pirates in May. Even so, Leyland didn't think his ace would grab the ball Sunday assuming he needs to be perfect for Detroit to win."I'm a big believer in Verlander," Leyland said. "Today, Justin, he'll be focused on their hitters. He's not going to worry about our offense." Well, that last bit isn't entirely true. Because Verlander himself will get a rare chance to dig in at the plate Sunday, Leyland said he's going to be a little more concerned about Detroit's run production than normal. Verlander is 7-4 with a 2.57 ERA in 2012, but he's never had a hit in 30 career plate appearances.
Entering Sunday's finale with the Pirates, Austin Jackson had not committed an error in center field since June 30, 2011, a stretch of 279 total chances over 120 games. Verlander hasn't lost since June 3 against the Yankees. The Tigers were 3-0 in his last three starts entering Sunday. In that time, the right-hander has picked up two wins, averaged seven innings and 6.67 strikeouts per appearance.
The Tigers announced after Sunday's game that right-hander Jacob Turner had been optioned to Triple-A Toledo. Drew Smyly will get the start on Tuesday in Texas after missing two weeks with a blister issue.
Mark Emery is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.