CLEVELAND: Thursday was supposed to be guaranteed loss night for the Indians. Who in their right mind would come to any other conclusion with the formidable Justin Verlander pitching for the Tigers?
Verlander probably is the consensus pick for the most dominating starter in the American League, if not the majors, a guy who reoutinely throws harder as the game wears on, eventually hitting 100 miles per hour or more in the late innings.
But Verlander (11-6, 2.60 ERA) has never had much luck against the Indians, who beat him 5-3 Thursday with a barrage of hits in a seventh-inning rally that was as shocking as it was lethally efficient. Verlander also lost 2-1 to the Tribe earlier this year, when he was outpitched by Justin Masterson.
“It was a good end to the series to be able to come back against a guy like Verlander,” manager Manny Acta said.
This was a different story from the Tribe’s May 24 win over Verlander, which was the kind of game one would expect him to lose, if he were to lose at all. Thursday night’s offensive explosion came from out of the blue.
“That inning seemed to come out of nowhere,” said Hafner, who tied the score with a home run. “The place was rocking. There was a lot of excitement.”
Through six innings, the Tribe’s only run came on a first-inning double by Shin-Soo Choo, who took third on a groundout and scored on Jason Kipnis’ sacrifice fly. Over the next five innings, the Indians had only two singles, neither struck with authority.
But Carlos Santana drove the first pitch of the seventh an estimated 419 feet over the wall in right for his eighth home run of the season, and Hafner followed with a 401-foot drive to right-center, his 10th homer of the year. That set off a huge roar from the crowd of 34,579.
Until his at-bat in the seventh, Santana had seen only one fastball from Verlander.
“He threw me a lot of change-ups before,” Santana said. “I wasn’t looking for a fastball, but he threw one and it was a little high. I liked it.”
Back-to-back home runs to tie the score against Verlander were the equivalent of a putt-putt pro shooting 4 under par at the U.S. Open, but the Tribe was far from satisfied.
Lopez continued the rally with a single, and two outs later, Choo singled to send Lopez to second. Asdrubal Cabrera lashed an RBI single to right, sending Choo to third, and Kipnis hit a fading liner off the glove of shortstop Ramon Santiago to score the fourth run of the inning.
How does something like this happen?
“You have to stay aggressive as a hitter,” Acta said, referring to the night’s strategy of swinging early in the count at hittable pitches. “What made Verlander great tonight was not just his fastball. He threw 50 percent fastballs, but he also threw a lot of off-speed pitches. When he does that, then he pumps up a 94 mile-per-hour fastball, it looks like it’s going 200.”
Verlander was charged with five runs, nine hits and two walks, striking out four. The defeat was the second in his past eight decisions.
The Indians have taken seven out of nine from the Tigers this season and are 3˝ games behind the first-place White Sox, who didn’t play, and three games behind Detroit.
Zach McAllister is the most inexperienced starter in the Tribe’s rotation, yet he has been the most dependable by far. He continued his string of positive appearances by holding the Tigers to two earned runs (three total) and nine hits in 6? innings. He walked two and struck out seven and seems to have become more polished in his command of the strike zone and has learned to throw harder with more movement on his slider since making four starts last year in his major-league debut.
Asked if this was the most important game of his career, McAllister said: “I wouldn’t go that far. But we were facing one of the game’s best pitchers and their lineup is a real challenge.”
McAllister left before the Tribe’s big inning, leaving runners on first and third with one out in the seventh. Joe Smith relieved him and threw two pitches to Miguel Cabrera, one of the league’s most dangerous hitters. Cabrera bounced into a double play to end the inning.
That made Smith the pitcher of record, and he earned his seventh win of the season.
“The good thing is that I didn’t have to blow a save to get the win,” Smith said.
Chris Perez got his 29th save of the year, but had to work out of a minor jam after putting runners on first and third with two out.
Beating the Tigers twice in the three-game set kept the Indians close to the contenders and maybe did something else.
“That was a huge win for us,” Hafner said. “It kind of showed what we’re made of.”
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at https://ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.