By Sheldon Ocker
Beacon Journal sports writer
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CLEVELAND: One bad inning. Make it two bad innings. Thanks for coming; see you next year.
Has it come to that, with the Indians losing the first two of a four-game series against the Detroit Tigers on home turf? Could be, but what if the Tribe wins the next two?
Stranger things have happened in baseball, but Tuesday night’s 5-1 loss and Monday night’s 4-2 defeat have put the Wobbly Wahoos in a tenuous position: five games behind the raging Tigers, who have won 10 in a row and 14 of the past 15.
It was a battle of the Justins on Tuesday night, Masterson against Verlander. And this just in: Verlander swatted away the hex the Tribe has had on him for years to deal what might be a crippling blow to the second-place team in the American League Central Division.
The suggestion that this game might be a turning point in the season for the Indians was met with a negative response from Tribe manager Terry Francona.
“When the season is over is the time to decide that,” he said. “I don’t feel like that.”
Masterson (13-8, 3.46 ERA) did what players almost always do and focused on the future.
“Yeah, we want to win these games, but the big thing is we need to win the games we’re supposed to win,” he said.
“And what do we have, 50-60 games left?”
Actually, it’s 49.
The Indians have long been Verlander’s jinx team. He came into the game with a career record of 16-14 and a 4.65 ERA against them. Before Tuesday night, he posted a 2-1 record and 5.82 ERA for the season.
Verlander (12-8, 3.74 ERA) was vulnerable early but yielded only one run in the second inning. Asdrubal Cabrera led off with a double and stopped at third on Michael Brantley’s single, then the rally ran out of steam.
Carlos Santana reached on a fielder’s choice that left runners at second and third, and Ryan Raburn delivered an RBI groundout, but that was the extent of the damage.
After that, Verlander started pitching like Verlander, retiring 12 in a row after Brantley’s single, taking him through the fifth inning. He hit Yan Gomes and gave up a single to Michael Bourn to start the sixth, but that only raised false hopes, as he retired the next three batters without incident.
Verlander didn’t leave until he had pitched eight innings, giving up four hits. He walked none and struck out seven.
Masterson has been proficient against many teams and dominant against some, but neither against the Tigers. In three starts this year, he is 0-3 with a 7.23 ERA.
The Tigers did all their damage in one inning, the fifth, which began with Masterson hitting Ramon Santiago in the leg with a pitch.
Austin Jackson followed with a single and Santiago had no trouble racing to third.
Torii Hunter bounced into a forced play to score Santiago, and Miguel Cabrera — playing on an injured hip — limped into second with an RBI double. He took third on Prince Fielder’s groundout, and instead of getting the third out, Masterson hit Victor Martinez in the foot.
That set up the 1-and-1 pitch that Don Kelly hit over the wall in right for a three-run homer, his fifth of the season.
Aside from giving up a home run, Masterson was most upset about hitting two batters.
“Hitting guys with those sliders probably was the toughest thing,” he said. “That’s what I’m most upset about.”
“It was all done in 16 pitches,” Francona said. “Give them an opening, and that’s what they can do.”
Kelly has been tormenting Masterson all season. Including his 3-for-3 game Tuesday night, he is batting .458 (11-for-24) against him for the year with two home runs and eight RBI.
“He loves facing me,” Masterson said. “If I was Superman, he would be my Kryptonite. He starts salivating when I’m in there.”
Added Francona: “That’s why Kelly was in there. He has definitely been a thorn in our side.”
The inning seemed eerily similar to the critical inning in Monday’s 4-2 loss. The Tribe led 2-0 going into the ninth, but Chris Perez gave up four runs, including a three-run homer by Alex Avila, who carried a sub-.200 batting average coming into the game.
If the Indians can win the final two games of the series, they will be back where they started following Sunday’s win over the Marlins.
But their season record of 3-11 against the Tigers indicates that will be difficult to do.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.