By Sheldon Ocker
Beacon Journal sports writer
DETROIT: Let that be a lesson to the Tigers.
“The Indians have a good team, too,” is a twist on a phrase Tribe manager Mike Hargrove occasionally voiced when his team got beat by a club with lesser credentials.
After losing 15 out of 18 to that Team Up North, the Indians rocked the Tigers 4-0 to win the finale in this year’s season series Sunday at Comerica Park.
It wasn’t easy. Tribe batsmen did not bust out of their month-long slump, but Mike Aviles whacked a grand slam in the ninth inning, and Danny Salazar showed again why he has the capability to become a true ace when he completes his development.
The victory didn’t exactly launch the Indians back into the thick of the Central Division race. At the moment, there is no race, because the Tigers lead the Tribe by 7½ games.
However, the second wild-card berth still is within the club’s grasp. The Athletics are leading that battle, but the Orioles, Yankees and Indians are within six games.
“We needed to win today, because a win today makes tomorrow all the more important,” manager Terry Francona said.
The Tribe returns to Cleveland for a three-game series with Baltimore, starting today at 4 p.m. at Progressive Field.
Justin Verlander worked seven scoreless innings, allowing four hits and two walks, and Salazar held the Tigers without a run through the sixth, giving up six hits and walking none.
The bullpens continued to post zeroes on the scoreboard until Joaquin Benoit took the mound in the ninth.
Walks to Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley, plus a sacrifice bunt, put Tribe runners on second and third, then Benoit was ordered to walk Jason Kubel intentionally.
Jose Ramirez, called up on Sunday from Akron, was summoned to pinch run for Santana. Ramirez has the quickness to steal bases, but inasmuch as this was his first game in the majors, he wasn’t going to flash his speed.
Nevertheless, he danced around taking sizable leads and forced Benoit to keep an eye on him.
“I don’t think it distracted Benoit,” Aviles said. “But he definitely was aware that he could run.”
After working the count to 2-and-2 and fouling off a couple of pitches, Aviles launched a drive that carried over the fence in left for his ninth home run of the season and his first career slam.
Asked if he remembered hitting one anywhere, Aviles said: “I don’t really know. I hit them in my sleep, but that was the first one in reality.”
Research uncovered a grand slam that Aviles hit in July of 2011 for Triple-A Omaha.
Aviles is part of the Tribe’s ultra-productive bench crew. Ryan Raburn, Jason Giambi, Yan Gomes (almost a regular) and Aviles have combined for 41 home runs and 138 RBI.
“Aviles shows up to play every day,” Francona said. “The moment is not too big for him.”
Salazar has been kept on a low pitch count by Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway. Sunday he threw 77 pitches, an average of only 12.8 per inning.
“I try to go as deep in the game as I can with those pitches,” Salazar said. “I think I did pretty good.”
In addition to throwing 96-98 mile-per-hour fastballs, Salazar has displayed an effective slider plus a baffling changeup. And when he is pitching, he appears to be as content as if he were playing a video game sitting on his living room couch.
“Anywhere there’s a pitcher’s mound, he’s comfortable,” Francona said. “And that’s whether it’s in the major leagues or the minor leagues.
“His future is obviously exciting. He’s exciting now. He has that extra gear like good pitchers do. But right now, we have to limit him.”
Salazar also has displayed the kind of confidence usually seen in veterans with a long list of accomplishments.
“You can see it in his face, in his demeanor and in his actions,” Aviles said. “He’s not fearful of who’s at the plate. It’s almost scary to think about him getting better. He has unbelievable stuff.”
After Salazar left, Nick Hagadone gave up a bloop single and a walk with one out in the seventh, marking one of the few legitimate threats by the Tigers. Cody Allen was called to the rescue and got the side out without damage.
“We couldn’t let them score,” Francona said. “The way they were putting up zeroes, we needed the score to stay tied.”
With no more games left against the Tigers, maybe the Indians can go back to winning.
“We want to keep playing,” Francona said, “until they make us go home.”
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.