CLEVELAND — If the Central Division race comes down to them and the consensus favorite Tigers, the Indians might not be in such a bad spot after all.
Cleveland has handled Detroit more than sufficiently this season, and it was the same story in the series opener Tuesday night at Progressive Field, with the Indians turning back the Tigers 3-2.
In front of a playoff atmosphere — 23,637 fans — Cleveland beat Detroit for the sixth time in seven meetings. The third-place Indians trail the first-place Tigers and White Sox by three games in the standings.
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“We’re not intimidated,” said Indians closer Chris Perez, who retired the side in order in the ninth inning to record his 28th save in 30 opportunities and his sixth in six tries against Detroit. “They’ve got the same guys as last year, but it just feels different this year.
“We haven’t gotten too high or too low this season. We’re still waiting to catch that hot streak.”
With 11 more games against the Tigers remaining, now would be an ideal time.
“Everybody knows what we’re playing for,” said Cleveland’s starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, who continued his mastery of Detroit by tossing six scoreless innings, while allowing seven hits and striking out four. “We’re trying to win the division. And if we want to do that, we have to start right here.”
The Indians won in the most dramatic of fashion, using a squeeze bunt to manufacture the game-winning run in the bottom of the seventh after Miguel Cabrera tied it with a two-run home run off Joe Smith in the top of the inning. Late-game defensive replacement Aaron Cunningham laid down the bunt, with pinch runner Lou Marson scoring. Marson was running for designated hitter Travis Hafner, who started the rally with a one-out triple off Detroit starter Doug Fister.
“We decided it was a good time to take a chance there,” manager Manny Acta said. “(Cunningham) executed it very well. We didn’t score enough runs, but we pitched well enough to win.
“It’s important to win the first one. Knowing that you’re playing the team that leads your division, you don’t want to be too far behind. We’ve been able to pitch well. In order for you to beat them, you have to keep the bottom of the order and the top of the order off the bases. You just have to keep those big boys (Cabrera and Prince Fielder) from coming to the plate with runners on.”
The Indians had the right man on the mound against Detroit in Jimenez, who improved to 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA in three starts against the Tigers this season. Jimenez (8-9, 4.97 ERA) wasn’t dominant, allowing base runners in each of the innings he worked, but he never buckled.
“Ubaldo pitched a heck of a six innings tonight,” Acta said. “He really had to pitch, literally. He had to make pitches.”
“You could say that. It was big,” said Jimenez, when asked if it was his best outing as an Indian. “It was pretty tough, but I was able to execute my pitches.”
Cleveland scored its first two runs on RBI singles from Johnny Damon and Carlos Santana to go up 2-0 after four innings.
Smith relieved Jimenez to start the seventh, retiring the first two batters before walking Quintin Berry after getting ahead 0-2. In Smith’s defense, the 3-2 pitch looked like a strike on replay.
Cabrera followed with his 24th homer of the season.
“It was only a matter of time,” Acta said. “There’s only so many times you can get Cabrera out with runners on base.”
The Indians bounced back quickly, with Hafner sending a drive off the top of the wall in left-center to set the stage for the squeeze bunt heroics.
“It was a huge win,” Hafner said. “Detroit’s been playing great. We feel like we can play better than we have.”
Cleveland improved to 15-6 in one-run games — the second-best record in the majors.