CLEVELAND — A key Central Division showdown couldn’t have begun any worse for the Indians.
Seemingly en route to a win in the series opener of a four-game set with first-place Detroit, Cleveland instead tasted a bitter defeat as the Tigers rallied for four runs in the ninth inning off closer Chris Perez to notch a 4-2 victory.
With a boisterous crowd in attendance at Progressive Field, the Indians were in control for nearly the entire game thanks to another sparkling outing from right-hander Corey Kluber and top-shelf defense from the fielders behind him.
But it was a nightmarish finish for Perez and the Indians. After Perez allowed the first three hitters he faced to reach base, Alex Avila took him deep for what turned out to be a game-winning three-run home run.
“It hurt,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “But we’ll show up (today). We certainly need to be resilient, and we’ve shown that. If we allow this to get in our way, we’re not the team I thought we were.”
Though he’s been criticized for much of the season, Perez had been near impenetrable since leaving the disabled list — 11 straight saves and just two earned runs in 18 games since June 27. But the right-hander, who was pitching for the third straight day, had little in the tank for one of the biggest moments of the season thus far.
Perez allowed a leadoff double to Prince Fielder, who scored on Victor Martinez’s RBI single. After walking Andy Dirks, Perez fell behind Avila 2-0 before Detroit’s catcher connected into the lower section of the bleachers in left field.
Perez, who has not spoken to reporters since leaving the injured list, dressed and left before the media arrived in the clubhouse after the game.
“It was tough,” Cleveland center fielder Michael Bourn said of the defeat. “This one was probably one of the toughest losses we’ve had. We’ll see how we respond and it will show what kind of team we have.”
The loss continued Cleveland’s futility against Detroit this year, with the Tigers beating the Indians for the 10th time in 13 games and improving to 6-1 at Progressive Field. The Tigers won their ninth straight game, while Cleveland lost for just the second time in 12.
“This team, that’s the top of the division,” Bourn said of the Tigers. “If you want to be at the top, you got to be able to knock them off. You can’t depend on whoever it is out there to knock them off and then think you’re going to win the division. We got to do it ourselves. That’s the only way to do it. It’s not an easy task, but it can be done. You got to knock them off.”
The loss stung even more for the Indians, who wasted a brilliant outing from Kluber, who shut out a vaunted Tigers lineup on six hits, while striking out six over 7⅓ innings. He was in line for his first win since July 12.
The Indians weren’t able to build much of a cushion for Kluber, however. Not with Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez allowing just two runs on four hits, while striking out 11 over 7⅔ innings.
Jason Giambi’s two-out single in the second inning scored the first run of the game, with a two-out double from Carlos Santana capping Cleveland’s scoring in the fourth.
The Indians were the picture of perfection through eight innings, with first baseman Nick Swisher, second baseman Jason Kipnis and left fielder Michael Brantley all contributing fielding gems. Brantley threw out Torii Hunter trying to stretch a double for his American League-leading 10th outfielder assist in the opening inning.
All of it was wasted by one shoddy effort in the ninth for Cleveland, which suffered its first loss in 30 games when leading after eight innings at home. The Indians fell to 51-2 overall when leading after eight.
“We don’t have any choice but to bounce back,” Kluber said. “We’ve got a lot of veteran guys in here that probably won’t let a lull happen.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or email@example.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @CAwesomeheimer.
WHO: Cleveland vs. Detroit
WHERE: Progressive Field
PITCHERS: Masterson (13-7, 3.33 ERA) vs. Verlander (11-8, 3.88)
TV/RADIO: SportsTime Ohio; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM, WMMS 100.7-FM