PITTSBURGH -- If the Tigers and Pirates are going to be Interleague rivals for the foreseeable future, Neil Walker might be the rivalry target for Detroit.
Even as a lifelong National League player, Pittsburgh's second baseman is steadily building a reputation as a Tigers killer.
"Yeah, he's a pain in the [backside]," catcher Alex Avila said.
He hit for the cycle over the course of the two-game series in Detroit, doubling and tripling on Memorial Day before homering for the game's only run on Tuesday. He went 5-for-10, raised his average from .240 to .259, and improved his two-year performance against the Tigers to 10-for-28 with four runs scored and five RBIs in seven games.
He's a .227 career hitter in Interleague Play, with a .655 OPS. Against the Tigers, however, those numbers jump to .255 and .813, respectively.
That was all before he added two more hits, including another home run, during the Tigers' 5-3 loss Wednesday night.
Even his brother-in-law can't figure it out. Don Kelly will pull for him for the vast majority of the season, and wants his kids to do the same, but not when they're playing against each other.
"He doesn't talk too much [trash]," Kelly said. "He always hits us well. I don't know what the deal is."
Hunter hit by pitch on elbow, dealing with swelling
PITTSBURGH -- The Tigers were already prepared to lose Torii Hunter for a couple of games this weekend while he attended his sons' graduation. Now they're hoping they don't lose him for longer than that.
As it is, his status for Thursday's series finale against the Pirates is questionable after he took a pitch off his left elbow during Wednesday night's 5-3 loss.
X-rays taken at the end of the game showed no broken bones, but the swelling was already severe enough that the 37-year-old had trouble moving his left arm, let alone flexing it.
"I haven't been hit like this in years," Hunter said. "It's painful. [Medical staff members] said it's going to be sore tomorrow. I'll see if I can get some work done tomorrow morning, ice it tomorrow, get to the park, do some things and see if I can get out there."
The 1-2 pitch from Bryan Morris hit Hunter flush on the elbow, Hunter said, putting him on base to lead off the seventh. Hunter was in obvious pain but stayed in the game. However, he barely moved when Miguel Cabrera hit a double-play ground ball to shortstop Jordy Mercer.
"It was so much pain I got dizzy," Hunter said. "I can't even explain it."
Hunter remained in the game for the seventh inning, but had enough trouble moving his arm that he ended up making a basket catch in right field in the bottom of the seventh. That was enough for manager Jim Leyland to lift him in the eighth inning.
"I think he was shaken up a little bit when he was on base," Leyland said. "He didn't run on the Cabrera ground ball, and I think he just got out of sorts. I think he was probably hurting."
Hunter is scheduled to leave the team after Thursday's game to return home to Texas for his sons' graduation, then rejoin the team Sunday in Baltimore for their series finale against the O's. The Tigers could well give him Thursday off to grant him three days to recuperate, but Hunter sounded like he wants to try to play.
"I have to swing and see how things are going," he said.
Slumping Avila trying to simplify his approach at plate
PITTSBURGH -- The Tigers didn't have many offensive highlights against Pirates pitching Tuesday night. The way Alex Avila has been struggling, his full-count walk and first-pitch single qualified.
The way Avila's season has been going, he wasn't going to argue that point.
"My at-bats [Tuesday] were good," Avila said after the Tigers' 1-0 loss, "and it felt good to have those at-bats. I just want to build on that."
Avila has been working with hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, trying to come up with adjustments that can quicken his swing and set him up for more consistent contact. In the end, they simplified his approach, taking out some mechanisms that were supposed to improve his swing but also complicated them.
"Normally in the past, I've always had a little bit of a toe tap for my rhythm," Avila said. "Recently, we've kind of eliminated that, tried to simplify it, get my swing a little bit shorter, make a little more contact."
He doesn't know whether that tweak is the answer, but he hopes it can at least put him in a better position to swing and make contact.
His first at-bat Tuesday was more about being in a position to take. He swung the bat only once out of seven pitches, fouling back a full-count sinker at 92 mph. The look on his face suggested he felt he just missed it.
He got the same pitch on the very next offering from Jeanmar Gomez, but out of the zone. He took it for ball four with two outs in the second inning.
His next at-bat in the fifth was the exact opposite. Gomez tried to get ahead with a first-pitch sinker over the plate and he centered it, lining it through the middle for a leadoff single. He was just 2-for-30 prior to that.
Statistically, the improvement from the last two games is incremental, raising his average from .168 on May 24 to .177 entering play Wednesday. It's the foundation, Avila said, he's trying to get at this point.
"We've been working our [butts] off trying to get me out of this," Avila said. "This is the worst stretch I've had in my entire life, since I can remember. Normally you get to the big leagues, guys are normally the best players in middle school, high school, college, all those things. You really learn how to deal with failure and how to be able to struggle and still be able to work and maintain your approach.
"We've been working very hard at it, trying to get back to basics and being a little more simple. We'll see how it goes."
Leyland explains reasons behind sticking with Ortega
PITTSBURGH -- Neil Walker is a switch-hitter, but his splits have always been stronger against right-handed pitching (.286 career average, .801 OPS) than lefties (.260, .662). Never have those splits been stronger than this year, albeit in limited at-bats after he missed time on the disabled list. The Pirates second baseman is 5-for-30 off southpaws and 30-for-105 against right-handers, including all three of his home runs.
So why did Walker face Tigers right-hander Jose Ortega in the 11th inning of the Tigers' 1-0 loss Tuesday night, when he hit a game-winning homer? It was the situation -- one out, nobody on base. Manager Jim Leyland said afterward that he had Phil Coke ready, and would have brought him in if leadoff man Starling Marte had reached base.
"If the first guy would've gotten on, I would've brought in Coke to turn Walker around [and] to hopefully hold [Marte] at first base," Leyland said. "And then you've got [Andrew] McCutchen coming up next, so you might have had to make another move, which is all right. But once he got Marte out, I was going to leave him in."
Drew Smyly was on rest last night. Darin Downs was another option. The main motivation, though, would have been to hold Marte at first.
"If he got on, I was going to bring Cokey in so he could hold him at first, because that guy can really run," Leyland continued. "If Walker bunts, gets him to second, then you can walk McCutchen and then you've got [Garrett] Jones, the left-hander. And then you've still got a right-hander ready if they happen to pinch-hit. You're still ready to do that."
Leyland to find right times to use V-Mart in NL park
PITTSBURGH -- Maybe later in the season, Victor Martinez will be far enough removed from knee surgery to get back behind the plate. For now, however, that's not happening.
Thus, while the Tigers returned to National League rules with Interleague Play for a couple more nights in Pittsburgh, Martinez went to the bench, leaving manager Jim Leyland to try to time his pinch-hit opportunities for when he can do the most damage.
"It depends on what happens with the lineup and where the runners are and how many outs there are," Leyland said. "Your options are pretty much cut and dry, where you would run him up there."
The pitcher's spot is the obvious one, but he wouldn't rule out hitting him for the catcher.
"You would preferably like to have him in an RBI situation if you could," Leyland said, "but you can't dictate that."