CLEVELAND — The Indians killed two birds with a number of very large stones Tuesday night at Jacobs Field.
In addition to beating Detroit 7-4 to strengthen its lead in the Central Division race, Cleveland also helped C.C. Sabathia’s Cy Young cause by taking it out on one of his closest competitors — Tigers ace Justin Verlander.
Verlander, who entered the start as one of the majors’ hottest pitchers, left with a frigid dose of reality after allowing a season-high seven runs and a career-high four home runs to the Indians, who own a 6½-game advantage over the Tigers in the division standings.
The win, Cleveland’s 19th in the last 24 games, came in front of 41,103 spirited fans — the eighth sellout of the season — and whittled the Indians’ magic number down to five. Cleveland trails the Red Sox by just a half game for the American League’s best record.
Verlander, last year’s AL Rookie of the Year, entered the outing with a sparkling 17-5 record and 3.47 ERA, winning five of his last six starts and four straight.
But as he has been all season, he was a different pitcher against the Indians, who scored all of their runs on the long balls they produced off the 24-year-old right-hander through 52/3 innings.
Ryan Garko tied the game at one with a solo shot to lead off the second inning, and Travis Hafner’s three-run homer to right-center knotted it again at four in the third.
Cleveland chased Verlander in the sixth and took the game over in the process with a pair of long balls from Victor Martinez and Franklin Gutierrez that put the Indians in front to stay. Gutierrez’s two-run shot to left was the longest of the foursome, traveling an estimated 434 feet and landing halfway up the bleachers, while Martinez’s gave him 24 on the year — a new career high.
“He’s tough and he has great stuff,” said Indians manager Eric Wedge. “I think he made a couple of mistakes and we took advantage of it. We do have some guys that can drive the ball out of the park.”
Like two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, whom the Indians have beaten five times this year, Verlander has traveled a rough road against Cleveland.
In five starts against the Indians this year, Verlander is 1-3 with an 8.13 ERA, allowing 25 earned runs in 27 2/3 innings. In his career, he is 3-5 with a 6.49 ERA in nine starts versus Cleveland. Half of his losses this season have come at the hands of the Indians. Verlander has allowed more than four runs just four times in 29 starts, twice against Cleveland.
“We just go out there and keep our plan, and die with our plan,” Martinez said in an effort to explain his team’s success against one of the league’s top starters.
It was a brief outing that seemed like a long one for Indians starter Jake Westbrook, who allowed four runs (three earned) on a season-high 12 hits through five innings. It matched the right-hander’s shortest stint of the year in 23 outings.
Though he allowed 14 baserunners through five innings, Westbrook was able to keep the damage to a minimum, and once his team tied the game in the third, he didn’t allow a run over his final two innings to keep the four-all tie intact.
“He didn’t bring his best stuff, but he was able to keep us in the game and give us five good innings,” Martinez said.
“I was kind of erratic and just had to battle,” said Westbrook, who has two losses and two no decisions in his last four starts. “But this is a team game. They picked me up. The offense came through and the bullpen picked me up.”
No one more than Jensen Lewis, who relieved Westbrook and offered up three scoreless innings, while retiring nine of the 10 hitters he faced — four on strikeouts — to get his first big league victory.
Lewis turned it over to closer Joe Borowski, who earned his league-leading 41st save in 47 chances by retiring the side in order in the ninth for one of the few times this season. Borowski struck out AL MVP candidate Magglio Ordonez for the first out of the inning after Ordonez entered the at-bat 4-for-4 lifetime off Cleveland’s closer.
The Indians have 11 regular-season games remaining to the Tigers’ 10. With two wins to open the series, Cleveland is making it tough on Detroit, which would need a miraculous finish to catch the Central frontrunners.
“They’re really putting the screws to us,” said Tigers closer Todd Jones.
Still, Wedge wouldn’t say the division race is over yet.
“We still have one more game with these guys,” said Wedge, whose team improved to 11-6 this season against Detroit. “I’ve been around long enough to know that you never assume anything and you never get ahead of yourself.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.