After the final out, closer Chris Perez let out a primal scream and punched the air in celebration.
The Cleveland Indians, overlooked and underappreciated – even by many of their own skeptical fans – had swept three straight from the Detroit Tigers and their high-priced lineup.
Maybe the AL Central will be a race after all.
Unless the Indians run away with it.
Justin Masterson matched Justin Verlander pitch for pitch for his first career win over Detroit, and the first-place Indians did just enough to beat the reigning AL MVP 2-1 Thursday and complete a three-game sweep of the underperforming Tigers.
Shin-Soo Choo homered on the third pitch from Verlander (5-2) as the Indians won for the eighth time in 10 games and opened a six-game lead over third-place Detroit.
”This is huge for the team,” said Perez, who saved all three games in the series after putting pressure on himself by ripping Cleveland fans for not supporting their team. ”We played good ball these last three games. I said when I made the comments that I was just going to go out and do the job. Luckily, I’ve been able to come through.”
Meanwhile, the Tigers have dropped six of eight, and manager Jim Leyland wasn’t around to see the final four innings after being ejected.
Detroit stranded 30 runners in the series and went just 3 of 28 (.107) with runners in scoring position. Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Delmon Young, the Tigers’ 3-4-5 hitters, went a combined 0 for 12 with runners at second or third.
”We’re not scoring,” Leyland said. ”We’re not swinging. That pretty much sums it up. I don’t know what else to tell you. I’d love to have something juicy for you, but I don’t.”
The Indians faded down the stretch last season, when injuries – and the Tigers – overwhelmed them. Detroit won the final 10 meetings between the clubs, but Cleveland has taken the first three of 18 against their division rivals, giving more legitimacy to another surprising start.
Although they may not be getting much national respect, the Indians have the Tigers’ attention and Perez believes others will begin giving Cleveland its due.
”We don’t have the star power,” Perez said. ”You look over there and they’ve got Cabrera and Fielder and Verlander and Valverde. That doesn’t win baseball games. Good teams win baseball games.”
Jose Lopez hit an RBI single in the fourth off Verlander, and as they’ve been doing for weeks, the Indians played solid defense, got timely hits and moved eight games over .500 for the first time this season.
Masterson (2-3) entered 0-4 in seven starts against the Tigers, but the right-hander allowed one run and five hits in seven innings to outduel Masterson. After his starter put two runners on in the seventh, manager Manny Acta headed to the mound to talk to Masterson, who believed his day was over.
”I was like, `Oh, no, please,”’ Masterson said.
But Acta just wanted to know if Masterson had the stamina and a sinker to get Cabrera and Fielder.
”I told him, `Let’s do this,”’ said Masterson, who got Cabrera on a fly to center and the stabbed a hard shot through the middle from Fielder before throwing to first for the final out.
”He’s our horse,” Acta said of the 6-foot-6 Masterson, who has struggled this season after being Cleveland’s most consistent starter in 2011. ”He’s got to get through that.”
Masterson was able to slow down Verlander, who has owned the Indians. He won all three starts against Cleveland last season, and came in 9-1 against them in his previous 12 starts. The right-hander gave up two runs, six hits, walked one threw a 102 mph fastball on his 116th pitch as if to remind the Indians that they’ll see him again.
”I wasn’t trying to send a message,” Verlander said. ”I was trying to light a spark. I thought if I could dominate an inning and get our guys back in quick, maybe something would happen.”
Frustration has been building for the Tigers, who signed Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million free agent contract in the off-season and were expected to dominate.
”You can only say it’s early for so long,” Verlander said. ”We’ve got to get it turned around. It’s disappointing the way we’ve been playing. Obviously, we all expected better.”
Choo quickly ended any suspense whether Verlander would repeat his flirtation, crushing the right-hander’s third pitch into the second deck in right – a 454-foot shot. Choo is batting .350 (14 of 40) in 10 games since moving into the leadoff spot.
Notes: Verlander has pitched at least six innings in 52 straight starts. It’s the longest streak in the majors since Steve Carlton did it for 69 consecutive starts from Sept. 13, 1979 to April 13, 1982. … Indians RHP Josh Tomlin reported no problems after throwing a 50-pitch simulated game in the bullpen. He’s been on the disabled list with a sore wrist since May 12. … Indians DH Travis Hafner was not in the starting lineup after fouling a ball off his right foot in Wednesday’s game. Acta said Hafner’s ”not OK” before saying he was day-to-day.