Anytime that Jim Leyland gives Justin Verlander the ball to pitch against the Tribe, the 30 year-old Old Dominion product is going to be a large part of the story. Last time out, the Indians knocked the former Cy Young and MVP around for five innings, spraying 10 hits for 5 runs in 5 innings, despite 9 strike three pitches from Verlander in an 11-7 loss at Progressive Field on May 22nd. The Indians would have no such luck this time around, with Detroit's ace pitching to form this time around, but it would be the Tigers 35 year-old closer, signed off the couch this spring, that made this 7-5 defeat more interesting than it should have been.
Being spotted a four-run lead, the once reliable Jose Valverde was in the advantageous position of counting outs in the ninth inning on Friday night at Comerica Park. After Joaquin Benoit cruised through the 3, 4, and 5 spots in Terry Francona's lineup, not allowing a ball to be hit out of the infield, Valverde aka Papa Grande got the ball with the task of not allowing the Indians to notch more runs than outs in the visitor's half of the inning.
He was off to a bad start, when Jason Giambi fouled off a couple of 1-2 pitches before pulling Valverde's 2-2 slider over the right field wall to make it 7-4 Tigers. The right-hand hitting Mike Aviles saw nothing but fastballs and couldn't catch up on a 1-2 pitch for the first out of the inning. Drew Stubbs wasn't faring much better with Valverde's fastball, but the #9 hitter made the Tigers closer pay for getting cute with a high, deep, and unplayable ball over the wall in left-center field, bringing the Indians within 2 with just 1 out.
Michael Bourn represented the second out of the inning, failing to "hit it where they ain't", but Jason Kipnis did just that, lining one to left and bringing Nick Swisher to the plate as the potential tying run. After fouling off a couple of four-seamers, Swisher harmlessly grounded out to Ramon Santiago at second base to end the game.
That capped off a miserable day at the ballpark for perhaps the Tribe's biggest pickup of the offseason. In addition to an 0-4 showing at the dish, he made two crucial errors in the field, a throwing error in the third on fielder's choice off the bat of Santiago and a mishap with the glove that allowed Jhonny Peralta to reach in the 5th inning. The extra out yielded the Tigers the opportunity to score when Nick Hagadone got Brayan Pena to ground into 6-3 double play.
The two runs Swisher donated to the Tigers were not charged to Ubaldo Jimenez (4-4), who took the loss after 3+ innings of work. The Indians #2 had been better of late, allowing just two runs in 15 total innings in his last two starts against Cincinnati and Tampa Bay, but the AL Central Division leaders wasted little time demonstrating their will on one of the Tribe's most inconsistent arms in recent history.
Former beloved Brave of the Cuyahoga, Victor Martinez put a 3-1 fastball into the seats in right to get Detroit on the board. Swisher's first error and a couple of walks loaded the bases for Torii Hunter, who beat out a ground ball to no-man's land for an RBI infield single. A five-pitch walk to the forever dangerous Miguel Cabrera plated another run to make it 3-0 before a Prince Fielder fly-out ended the inning.
The Tigers extended their lead in the fourth inning, starting with an Avisail Garcia lead-off double. He scored on Andy Dirks RBI single, and the pitch that Torii Hunter lined to right field would Ubaldo's last of the night. Matt Albers was brought in to do some damage control, and to his credit, he could have done a lot worse than allowing the inherited runner to score on the double play ball he siphoned out of Cabrera, but it doesn't change the fact that it was Detroit 5, Cleveland 0 after four innings at Comerica.
The Indians finally got something going off of Verlander in the away half of the fifth, loading the bases on three singles, going station-to-station on each one. Michael Bourn, who was 2-for-5 at the dish, got the Indians on the board with a single, which plated a run. Jason Kipnis finally broke the montony with a high fly ball to the track that a young Torii Hunter probably would have caught. In reality, it was ruled a double and closed the gap to 5-3. The rally stalled when Michael Brantley and Swisher couldn't do anything with runners in scoring position. The Tigers were able to get one of those runs back, thanks in part to Swisher's fielding error, making it 6-3 after 5.
It appeared as though the Tribe was back at it in the sixth, with runners at first and second, and 1 out, but Mike Aviles and Drew Stubbs failed to get the ball out of the infield. The big inning was over before it began.
Nick Hagadone, Bryan Shaw, Rich Hill, and Matt Langwell threw four innings in relief, allowing just one earned ran on four hits, keeping the game within striking distance. Verlander came out for the 7th inning, having already thrown 101 pitches, and retired Bourn, Kipnis, and Swisher on just 7 pitches. It isn't out of the ordinary for Verlander's pitch count to get into the 110-120 range, but one has to wonder if the Indians, specifically Swisher, need to be working the counts a little more with the starter being out there late in the game like that. Despite his best efforts to avoid Leyland's hook during stretch-time in MoTown, that was it for Detroit's ace. Benoit and Papa Grande eventually closed the deal, even if the Tigers closer did not make it look easy.
The Indians and Tigers are back at it tommorrow in Detroit in the second of this three game weekend series. The Tribe, losers of 5 in a row, will have Justin Masterson Carlos Carrasco on the bump, taking on fellow-sinkerballer Rick Porcello for Leyland and Detroit. The result of the game will dictate whether the Indians enter Sunday's action above or below .500.