|STEVE MANHEIM / CHRONICLE|
|Indians relief pitcher Rafael Betancourt celebrates.
CLEVELAND — Maybe this is the year.
How else do you explain what happened Monday night at Jacobs Field?
Trailing for the majority of the night and playing the part of losers to perfection against the Detroit Tigers, the Indians conjured up some magic that transformed them into winners.
On the verge of allowing the Tigers to tighten the noose in the Central Division race, Cleveland instead produced a late rally that was capped by a walk-off home run by Casey Blake, which left the Indians clinging to a 6-5, 11-inning victory in front of 28,825 overjoyed fans.
“It was a playoff atmosphere, a playoff-type game,” said Indians starting pitcher Paul Byrd, whose team committed two errors and played lethargically through the first seven innings. “It symbolized, really, the way the year has gone. Just when you think we’re going to fold, something miraculous happens and we’re winning a game we probably shouldn’t have won.”
The win, the Indians’ 10th in 17 games against the defending American League champions, bumped their lead to 5½ games over Detroit, which lost for the first time in six games.
Cleveland tied it with two outs in the eighth inning on a two-run home run from Jhonny Peralta — his second of the night — off fireballing setup man Joel Zumaya, then won it with on another long ball from Blake off Zach Miner in the 11th.
“It’s probably the biggest game we played all year,” Blake said. “The way we came back. We wouldn’t have been in that spot if not for Jhonny Peralta. What a great team win.”
Blake was a semi-unlikely hero, struggling for much of the year with runners in scoring position but coming through with the game on the line a handful of times this year, including another walk-off homer last Friday.
“There was some irony,” said Cleveland manager Eric Wedge. “At times he’s criticized for not doing as well as he should with runners on base. But timing is everything. The layman who looks at numbers thinks he has it figured out, but it’s just not true.”
Detroit built an early lead by scoring five times through the first four innings off Byrd, who worked a mediocre 71/3-inning outing, allowing five runs (four earned) on 10 hits.
Byrd, who entered the game with five wins in his last six starts, allowed a solo homer to Placido Polanco in the third that put the Tigers in front 2-1, then three more in the fourth, with help from a pair of errors, that left Detroit in front 5-1.
Byrd was outdueled by his counterpart Kenny Rogers, who worked his best outing in three starts since leaving the disabled list.
Rogers allowed a run in the first on a wild pitch and just two for the game on five hits through seven innings. He got stronger as the game wore on, retiring 10 of the last 11 batters he faced with just one reaching on a walk.
With Rogers gone, the Indians went to work on Zumaya.
Zumaya walked the first batter he faced in the eighth — Grady Sizemore — before Asdrubal Cabrera followed with a hit.
Zumaya retired the next two hitters, with Victor Martinez making it 5-3 on a grounder to first, but got behind Peralta, and Cleveland’s shortstop delivered, driving a 2-0 fastball away over the wall in right field to tie the game.
Kenny Lofton grounded to second to start the 11th off Miner, who pitched a scoreless 10th, striking out Franklin Gutierrez while pinch runner Josh Barfield was thrown out stealing to end the inning.
That brought Blake to the plate. Blake fell behind in the count 1-2 before connecting on a breaking ball and sending it sailing over the wall in left-center. Blake sped around the bases pumping his fist before being mobbed at home plate by his teammates.
The significance of winning the first game of this pivotal series was not lost on Blake.
“The first, second and third, we need them all,” he said. “To lose the first one would’ve been tough. That’s why I was so fired up. It was such a big win.”
“It’s no secret this is the biggest series of the year for us,” he said. “For us to win the first game the way we won it is a great feeling. I’ll sleep a lot better tonight, thanks to Casey Blake and Jhonny Peralta.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.