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Must C Clutch: Avila belts a three-run shot off Perez

CLEVELAND -- Indians manager Terry Francona admitted he had a bad feeling about Alex Avila. It came in the second inning against Corey Kluber in a pitching duel, not the ninth inning against Chris Perez in a Tigers comeback for an eventual 4-2 win.

It was a drive to deep left-center field that speedy Michael Bourn ran down at the base of the wall.

"When he hits the ball that direction, he makes me nervous," Francona said he told third-base coach Brad Mills at the time.

Left-center is where Avila hits for power when he's right. He got away from that in stretches and it hurt him. He hasn't hit for the same power the last two years that he did during his All-Star season, but when he connected with Perez's fastball on the outside corner and sent it in that same direction, Francona had that same bad feeling.

When it cleared the high wall in left-center for a go-ahead three-run homer, it sent the home portion of the crowd of 24,381 at Progressive Field from a roar into a rage.

It sent the Tigers dugout, silenced like the offense for much of Monday evening, into euphoria. What looked like a shutout loss to their division pursuers swung within four batters to the Tigers' ninth consecutive win, their longest streak since their September 2011 winning streak that turned the division race into a runaway.

"To be honest with you, it was so loud in our dugout after I got in there, I didn't notice it," Avila said of the crowd reaction. "I'm not doing it to shut up the crowd, but it's definitely a nice feature about it."

Exactly one year earlier, the crowd reaction was exactly the opposite when the Tigers got to Perez for a go-ahead homer. That was a Miguel Cabrera walk-off blast in extra innings at Comerica Park. The Tigers were still chasing the White Sox at that point, but the win essentially put free-falling Cleveland away in the division race.

This time, the Tribe and Tigers are the two main contestants in this division duel, and their four-game series could set the tone for the stretch run, whichever way it leans. The comeback stretched Detroit's lead to four games, its largest advantage since June 23.

The fact that it came from Avila, not Cabrera or one of the Tigers' many other bigger threats, might seem to make it bigger. Yet Avila has shown a knack for this.

The last reliever to give up a go-ahead homer to Avila in the ninth inning is now in the Tigers bullpen. Avila hit a two-run homer off then-Astros closer Jose Veras on May 3 to pull out a comeback win in Houston.

Before that, there was the two-run walk-off shot off former Red Sox reliever Mark Melancon in the 11th inning last year, turning a one-run deficit into a one-run win. Then there was the game-tying two-run shot off Sergio Santos in Chicago two years ago, or the go-ahead shot in the same place exactly 13 months earlier off J.J. Putz.

Add them up, and Avila now has five game-tying or go-ahead home runs in the ninth inning or later, according to research on baseball-reference.com. Seventeen of his 49 career home runs are go-ahead or game-tying shots.

Just like in Houston, the normally reserved Avila raised his fist rounding first base as he saw the ball clear the high fence in left-center field. The boos, meanwhile, rained down on Perez (4-2).

"It feels good," Avila said. "It's exactly how you think it would feel. I mean, I've done it before, so I've had that feeling a few times."

For eight innings, the Indians were on their way to reducing their division deficit to two games, holding down Detroit's offense in its first day without just-suspended Jhonny Peralta. Anibal Sanchez and Detroit's defense, however, kept the game within reach for just something like this.

Detroit's new-look defense featuring Jose Iglesias at short did its part to keep it close. Austin Jackson made a leaping catch at the center-field fence to steal a hit away from Lonnie Chisenhall with two outs and Jason Giambi at first base in the second inning. Prince Fielder made a diving stop down the first-base line to rob Jason Kipnis of extra bases, and Andy Dirks made a grab on the warning track in left.

Add in 11 strikeouts over 7 2/3 innings from starter Anibal Sanchez, his first game in double digits since May 24, and the Tigers gave themselves a chance. The Tigers held their opponent to two runs or less for the sixth consecutive game and the 11th time in 15 games since the All-Star Game. They've only lost one of those in the bunch.

Still, heading into the ninth, Sanchez was in line to become the first Tigers pitcher since Jack Morris in 1988 to lose a game with that many strikeouts over that many innings.

Perez took the mound in the ninth having saved 11 games in as many chances since his return in late June, allowing just two runs on 13 hits over 19 innings in that stretch. The Tigers needed just three swings to double that without recording an out.

Prince Fielder, who had a 10-pitch battle, but a strikeout to show for it in his previous at-bat, doubled into the left-field corner to lead off the inning before Victor Martinez's single sent him around. Andy Dirks' walk moved pinch-runner Hernan Perez into scoring position for Avila.

"He's been producing a little bit since he's been back [from the disabled list] to be honest with you," manager Jim Leyland said. "He's been hitting the ball in the gap. ... That's the kind of hitter we need him to be for us."

Detroit missed a chance to add on from there, but the two-run lead was enough for Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit, who retired the side in order for his 13th save in as many opportunities.

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