CLEVELAND -- When the season began, Detroit’s visit to Progressive Field for a three-game series Monday through Wednesday figured to be a showdown between two of the top contenders in the Central Division.
Only one of the teams is holding up its end of the bargain, and it’s not the Indians.
The three-time defending division champion Tigers entered Monday owning a substantial seven-game lead in the Central, while leading last-place Cleveland by 10 1/2 games. Detroit had won six straight through Sunday after completing a three-game sweep of the Red Sox, while the Indians were riding a four-game skid -- swept in three games by Oakland -- and had lost five of their last six.
“I think I’d actually rather see their Triple-A team. They’re pretty good,” joked manager Terry Francona of the Tigers. “I know they’re really good and they got it going. We’re going to have to play better, and so this would be a good team to do it against.”
Detroit is a different team this year, losing Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta, but gaining Ian Kinsler and Rajai Davis. Yet, the Tigers are still built on top-shelf starting pitching, with right-handers Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer leading the way.
“I think they got a little more athletic,” Francona said, “and when you run those pitchers out there every day, you’re in every game.”
Miguel Cabrera, the two-time defending American League MVP, is at the forefront of Detroit’s offense, but a former Cleveland player -- Victor Martinez -- has been pivotal batting behind Cabrera in the cleanup spot. He entered Monday hitting an AL-high .331 with 10 home runs and 25 RBIs in 39 games.
“I used to tell (former Tigers manager Jim) Leyland all the time, (Martinez) was the perfect protection for Miggy,” Francona said. “Victor can hit good pitching. He’s a switch hitter. He can go get a ball. When Victor’s going good, he can hit one from his shoe tops to his ears and it makes you nervous (as an opposing manager).”
Francona was asked if Martinez and Cleveland left fielder Michael Brantley were a good comparison.
“Obviously, (Brantley’s) a left-handed hitter, but I think that’s a good compliment,” he said. “I think that’s a compliment to both of them.”
Tonight’s scheduled starter, right-hander Trevor Bauer, has the opportunity to remain in the rotation for the remainder of the season. He’s gone 4-1 with a 2.15 ERA in seven starts for Triple-A Columbus, and pitched well for the Indians in a spot start, April 9 -- six innings, one earned run, four hits and eight strikeouts.
“I think we’re kind of excited to see how he’s going to do,” Francona said. “We’ve been talking for a year now that this guy is a big part of what we want to do going forward. To see him growing and understanding, it’s exciting.”
Francona believes struggling first baseman Nick Swisher is pressing. Swisher, who is making $15 million in the second of a four-year contract worth $56 million, entered Monday batting .196 with three home runs and 16 RBIs in 43 games -- and hitting .171 (12-for-70) with runners on base.
“I think guys in their own way, even veterans sometimes, try too hard,” Francona said. “He knows how important he is to what we’re doing and he wants to be the guy bad. Sometimes that plays into the other team’s hands.
“It’s amazing what a little bit of confidence can do and you get on a roll and things start going. It will change. The sooner it changes, the better it is for us, because he’s such an important player for us.”
Swisher has also struggled defensively, committing six errors. The Indians led the majors with 45 errors in 44 games through Sunday. Francona said Swisher took early infield practice prior to the series opener against Detroit.
Francona was asked if there was a difference between ace Justin Masterson this year from last season. Masterson (2-3, 5.06 ERA) is off to a slow start, allowing five earned runs or more in five of his 10 outings.
“I think the the last couple starts, he’s struggled with command,” Francona said. “I think we believe in Masty so much that we think he’s going to figure it out, because it’s someone we rely on heavily.”
Masterson was as angry as he has ever been meeting with reporters after his poor effort in a 13-3 loss to Oakland on Sunday. He vowed his next start would be a good one.
Thanks to mechanical problems with the airplane scheduled to take them to Cleveland on Sunday night, the Tigers were forced to stay an extra day in Boston, following their sweep-clinching victory over the Red Sox in an 8 p.m. game.
The Tigers, who didn’t return to the team hotel until 3 a.m. Monday, flew to Cleveland that afternoon and didn’t arrive at Progressive Field for the series opener until around 4:30 p.m.
- Jason Giambi is expected to be activated from the disabled list today. He has played in just four games this season, spending two different stints on the injured list with a fractured rib and a calf strain.
- Despite scoring first in five of their last six games through Sunday, Cleveland posted just one win.
- Tonight, 7:05, STO; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM, WMMS 100.7-FM. Bauer (0-1, 1.50) vs. Verlander (5-2, 3.15).