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MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Tigers have Tribe's number as gap widens in Central

Tigers have Tribe's number as gap widens in Central

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Tigers have Tribe's number as gap widens in Central

MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

CLEVELAND -- The American League Central race between the Tigers and Indians exists. Or, at the very least, existed.

I swear. I'm not making this up.

They stopped home delivery of the local newspaper here on Monday, so I can't find that day's sports page to prove it. Maybe I can do some sort of Google cache search for Internet evidence, but this will be easier if you just take my word for it that, two days ago, this really did look like a race.

The Indians, if you can remember back that far, were three games back and had won 10 of 11. The Tigers were in the midst of their usual second-half surge, but they couldn't shake that feisty Tribe.

Something happens, though, when these two clubs get together. All that early season expectation that the Tigers would run away with the Central looks profoundly prescient. And if all you knew about this race was what you saw when these two face each other, you'd struggle to understand why it's considered a race at all.

The Tigers, after all, have won 11 of 14 meetings with the Indians this season. They won again Tuesday night at Progressive Field, where Justin Verlander outdueled (and out-Justined) Cleveland ace Justin Masterson, pushing the Tigers' AL Central advantage to five games, after what can only be described as a nightmarish 24 hours for the Indians.

Late Monday night, the Tribe saw a sensational Corey Kluber start go to waste when closer Chris Perez couldn't protect a 2-0 ninth-inning lead, with Alex Avila's three-run blast serving as the seminal moment thus far in the season series. The loss proved all the more costly when it was revealed on Tuesday that Kluber strained his right middle finger on his fourth-to-last pitch of the outing, an injury that sent him to the 15-day disabled list shortly before Tuesday's loss.

That's a lot to take in. And even with nearly eight weeks left in the season proper for a team that has been as resilient as any this year, that's a lot to recover from.

"It just kind of seems like after yesterday and today," said Nick Swisher, "it's just been one bad thing after another."

Tuesday's pitchers' duel went bad when Masterson let a five-run fifth inning get away from him after Ramon Santiago reached on a hit-by-pitch that may or may not have qualified as a bunt attempt. The inning got out of hand from there and spiked when Don Kelly, who has inexplicably potent numbers against Masterson (a .458 average, including two homers and six RBIs this season), hit a three-run homer into the Tigers' bullpen.

"He salivates," Masterson said of Kelly, "when I get up there."

The Indians are where they are this season in no small measure because Masterson has made the transition from nominal ace to actual ace. Again, though, you wouldn't know that from these meetings. He's 0-3 with a 6.86 ERA in three outings against Detroit.

And Verlander? Well, he hasn't exactly been the Verlander of '11 and '12 this season, but this night was evidence that the Verlander of old still lurks within. He went eight innings, allowed a run on four hits and saw his fastball creep up the velocity chart while creeping down around the knees of a perplexed Indians offense.

"When he's not thinking so much, not trying to find his mechanics or release point, he's just grabbing it and going," Tigers catcher Avila said of Verlander. "It was hard for me, at times, to keep up with him. When he's rapid fire, it's boom, boom, boom. Hitters are trying to call for time."

Were the Indians afforded the luxury of calling for time, they'd probably take advantage of it right about now. Because this series -- a series that, rightly or wrongly, is being read by many as a litmus test of the Tribe's ability to either contend or crumble -- has quickly slipped away from them. And on Wednesday, they'll call on 23-year-old rookie Danny Salazar, making only his second Major League start, to be their stopper as they try to salvage a split.

Oh, Danny boy. No pressure, kid.

Salazar's superb debut against the Blue Jays a month back was one of the many "Where did that come from?" moments that have allowed the Tribe to surge up the standings this season. They've survived on the might of an improving young core and a surprisingly productive bench, and the locals have taken enough notice that TV ratings for Monday's game actually outpaced "The Bachelorette" finale.

The Tigers, however, are the thorn in the Indians' rose ceremony. Never has that been more clear than it's been the last couple of days.

"To win in your division," Avila said, "you have to beat the guys in your division. That's just what you have to do. We're at a point in the year where every game is important."

The Indians have beefed up elsewhere in their schedule this season, and with a heavy dose of Angels, Twins, White Sox and Astros, their remaining schedule qualifies as somewhat soft -- a point they've no doubt noticed.

"Yeah, we want to win these games and hopefully split the series," Masterson said. "But the main factor as we go through the rest of the season is going to be winning games we're supposed to. If we can't do that, it's not going to matter even if we beat Detroit."

Well, sure, but beating Detroit couldn't possibly hurt. And when you can't capitalize on a late-inning lead (the Tribe was 29-0 when leading after eight innings at home before Monday's meltdown), and can't win with your ace and lose arguably your second-best starter in the process, it stings considerably.

Mum was the word on how long the Indians expect Kluber to be on the mend, but Zach McAllister missed a month and a half with a similar strain. Beyond Salazar, the forecast on the farm is partly cloudy with a chance of Dice-K. The Indians have hung with the Tigers in the standings because they've hung with them on the mound, where, entering Tuesday, the two clubs had the two best starters' ERAs in the Majors since the All-Star break. One way or another, that must continue.

This is still a race, as we sit here today. But that will be an exponentially more difficult statement to make with a straight face if the Indians don't salvage this series.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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