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SEA@DET: Avila blasts a two-run home run to center

DETROIT -- The Tigers have Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and one of the more formidable batting orders assembled in recent years. The Mariners have Ichiro Suzuki batting third and a lot of unproven young hitters behind him heading up an offense that was blanked and held hitless by White Sox right-hander Philip Humber a few days earlier.

With Tuesday's 7-4 defeat, the Tigers have a series-opening loss heading into Wednesday's date with Felix Hernandez. They also have a shortened bullpen for rookie left-hander Adam Wilk. Overall, they have their first legitimate stretch of early-season struggles this year, having taken their fourth loss in their last five games.

If Hernandez shuts down Detroit's offense, the Tigers could head into Thursday's series finale looking to avoid what would be their second straight April sweep at the hands of the Mariners, who have proved to be a challenge at Comerica Park recently.

"They're a Major League Baseball team," manager Jim Leyland said. "And if you don't play good enough, they beat you."

Recent history shows that. When the Mariners came to town last April, the Tigers were coming off a sweep of the White Sox that included back-to-back shutouts. Seattle swept the three-game set by a 24-6 margin, starting Detroit on a seven-game losing streak that sent the team a season-low five games under .500 and eight games behind hot-starting Cleveland.

Tuesday's loss dropped Detroit into a tie with Chicago and Cleveland. But a 10-7 start is hardly struggling, though it comes after the Tigers won nine of their first 12.

Still, Tuesday's game was a microcosm of some of the factors the Tigers are battling right now, from a rotation with a lot of pressure on the top three starters to an offense trying to manufacture runs off more than the long ball.

They had well more than 1,000 feet worth of drives on Tuesday night, from Alex Avila's 432-foot two-run homer into the center-field shrubs and Miguel Cabrera's 400-foot solo shot to left to deep doubles from the struggling Ryan Raburn and Brandon Inge.

With four runs over Jason Vargas' six innings, the Tigers plated more than three runs off a starter for the first time since rocking Boston's Clay Buchholz for seven on April 8. It still wasn't enough to give Detroit a lead at any point after a subpar start by Max Scherzer (1-2), who struggled to find any sort of groove.

It wasn't just the five runs in as many innings that plagued him but the high pitch count. The Mariners drew 103 pitches out of him over those five innings, including four full counts and a bevy of foul balls.

"We dug ourselves a pretty big hole," Leyland said, "but it was basically about [Scherzer's] command. It really wasn't about stuff. His command just wasn't good. He got over 100 pitches in five innings. That's usually a disaster."

And when it comes at this point in the rotation, it's doubly dangerous. With former Mariner Doug Fister out and Wilk starting in his place, Leyland would prefer to have his full bullpen arsenal available. The Tigers used Collin Balester and Phil Coke for two innings each on Tuesday, though Coke threw just 24 pitches.

Duane Below is expected to be available after pitching six innings on Saturday, which should help them against Seattle's left-handed hitters. Still, it's a concern.

Seattle put the leadoff man on base in three of Scherzer's five innings, twice by walk. All three times the Mariners' relatively small-ball offense sent home the runner. The other two runs came off Michael Saunders' two-run double off a hanging changeup in the third inning.

Scherzer started throwing earlier than usual this past offseason in an effort to get into midseason form sooner and shake off some of the struggles that marked his previous Aprils. His first four starts have been up and down, combining for an 8.24 ERA over just 19 2/3 innings. He has thrown just three pitches beyond the sixth inning.

"A couple of years ago, he got in a real good groove the second half," Leyland said. "But right now the groove is not there. It's just been inconsistent. It's there sometimes, and sometimes it's not. He's got to get some consistency, and that basically means repeating your delivery some. He was kind of falling off a lot tonight and missing. He got a changeup up to Saunders tonight that hurt him. Basically, his control was not good."

The two sides traded runs in the fifth, Detroit's coming on Cabrera's drive to left before Alex Liddi's seventh-inning solo homer added what turned out to be a critical insurance run. Liddi's homer meant that the back-to-back singles Detroit hit in the eighth inning merely put the tying run on base.

"You're still winning the ballgame," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. "What you're trying to do is just answer and separate."

Seattle's Tom Wilhelmsen kept the lead runner from scoring with back-to-back strikeouts of Jhonny Peralta and Avila, keeping Vargas (3-1) in line for the win. Saunders doubled in another win in the ninth, making it easier for Brandon League to pick up the save.

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