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Indians fall flat in series opener with Tigers

The Indians pick the wrong night to have one of their worst.

CLEVELAND -- Well, that didn’t go quite according to plan.

The Indians welcomed their first non-Opening Day sellout in two years by a) not scoring off the Detroit Tigers fifth starter, and b) seeing their No.1 starter not last five innings.

Well, there were fireworks after the game.

Which helped bring 40,167 to Progressive Field.

So … there’s that.

But the Indians didn’t do much to keep them excited.

Before the game the Indians talked a lot about no one series being any more important than another, and not paying attention to the scoreboard or the standings until September.

But to the fans, this four-game series against Detroit meant something, and maybe something more than every other series.

So Justin Masterson had his shortest start of the season (4 1/3 innings, six runs) and Detroit’s Rick Porcello gave up no runs in seven innings after giving up 16 his previous 16 1/3. It was that kind of night, from the get-go almost.

Masterson explained his struggles as “flying open” all night, a no-no for any pitcher, much less a No. 1 starter. Masterson went on to say he did that because he shaved his beard, which reduced drag, which messed up his mechanics, which … well … something like that ... never mind.

It was just that kind of night.

Masterson gave up key hits at some odd times. Ramon Santiago is hitting .175 and was 1-for-14 against Masterson before driving in a run with a base hit. Masterson walked Alex Avila (.174) in the same inning. And Jhonny Peralta drove Masterson from the game in the fifth with a first-pitch double when he was 1-for-17 against the Indians starter.

The Tigers are tough enough when Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are hitting well. Give them extra at-bats and baserunners with the guys hitting below .200 and the results are evident.

“When you don’t have your ‘A’ game with that lineup, that will certainly add to it,” manager Terry Francona said.

Masterson has taken the ball every fifth day. He’s pitched three shutouts. He’s won 10 games. His ERA even with Friday’s ugly numbers is 3.78. He’s having a season a lot of pitchers wish they could have, but he had a night against the Tigers neither he nor the team wanted. It happens. That it does doesn’t make it easier when there’s a long-awaited sellout.

A few days ago, the Indians were in first place by a half-game over Detroit. After losing the series opener, and their third in a row, they are now 2 1/2 back.

Which highlights a little problem.

Cleveland is 2-7 against Detroit, which has six in a row over the Indians.

The Indians are 8-19 against the teams in the AL East, four of whom are over .500 -- including 1-6 against both Boston and New York. 

Cleveland’s record against teams that have a winning record: 18-29.

Clearly, this is more than a little problem.

One loss in a series opener does not mean anything in the long-term. The Indians opened their first series in Detroit with a loss, then won two in a row.

But to be a good team a team has to beat the other good teams.

The Indians have a clear line of demarcation. They are 27-12 against teams with a losing record or that are .500, 18-29 against teams with a winning record.

This in no way means the Indians can’t contend to win the AL Central, or that they can’t compete for a wild card spot. Nor does this latest loss to the Tigers sound any kind of death-knell for a season.

As Francona said: “It means they won tonight. I’d rather win than lose. Come back tomorrow and we start over again.”

That’s the attitude he has tried to instill from day one. Asked before the game when he starts considering series “crucial,” Francona said April 1 -- as in every game is important.

The Indians lost to the Tigers. They get three more chances (Yes, Carlos Carrasco brings his 8.17 ERA back from AAA to start on Saturday). Teams have these kind of nights. This one has bounced back from bad games and bad stretches all season.

It’s just that the Indians picked the worst night to have one of their worst nights.

By no definition was this one a close shave.