Race not over but Tigers look strong


CLEVELAND — Maybe the American League Central race lost some of its sizzle Monday night when Alex Avila’s three-run home run in the top of the ninth inning settled into the bleachers at Progressive Field.

Maybe the stake was driven deeper into the Cleveland Indians’ heart when the Detroit Tigers put a 5-spot on the board in the top of the fifth Tuesday night against Tribe ace Justin Masterson.

Hey, maybe it’s over already.

But maybe it’s not.

“Look, it’s August 6,” said Detroit manager Jim Leyland.

Well, it was when he said it. As you read this, it’s the 7th and the Tigers have won 10 straight and 14 out of 15.

Leyland is the guy who Tuesday penciled Don Kelly into the lineup in left field instead of Andy Dirks. Why? Kelly had eight hits, including two home runs, lifetime against Masterson.

“Kelly might strike out four times,” Leyland said, “but that’s why he’s playing.”

Or, by the end of the night, Kelly might have 11 hits, including three home runs, lifetime against Masterson. This Kelly homer, a three-run variety, was the foundation of a 5-1 victory that bumped Detroit’s AL Central lead to five games.

The Indians will send a just-recalled rookie to the mound tonight. Max Scherzer, he of the 16-1 record, pitches for Detroit in the finale Thursday. So Masterson might have been the Tribe’s best chance.

It was ace vs. ace, although as Cleveland manager Terry Francona indicated we might have to be a bit more specific.

“Detroit has about four aces,” he said.

True. But the ace of aces has always been Justin Verlander. And if Tuesday night was him updating his resume after a season of ups and downs then nothing has changed. He has 12 wins now after scattering four hits, walking none and striking out seven in an efficient … no, make that dominant eight innings of work.

“I’m excited,” he said. “I made an adjustment and it had a big impact and it was everything I’ve been looking for. I’ve worked about as hard as I can work, I’ve been tinkering, and it’s nice to find something.”

He explained that his landing point was a bit closed, his front foot pointing maybe five inches too far toward right-handed hitters instead of at the center of the plate. He saw it on video, took it to the bullpen, and for the first time Tuesday brought the adjustment to a game.

Little fix. Big difference.

“That’s the Justin Verlander we know,” Leyland said, adding that Verlander’s fastball velocity was the best and hardest it had been all season. “There’s a difference between 96-97 [mph] and 91-92. It makes the other stuff even better. And it doesn’t get much better than what we just saw.”

Leyland doesn’t often get excited, but that’s the way he sounded.

Ditto for Verlander, who has been searching to regain a standard that is so much higher than most.

There are a lot of arms in this rotation to begin with. If Tuesday night’s message is that Verlander is again Verlander, then this might have been Detroit’s biggest win yet.

The Tigers certainly don’t appear to be having much trouble passing the ball from the rotation to the back end of the bullpen, which seems rediscovered and rock solid.

The Indians can’t match it, as their 3-11 record against Detroit this season might attest.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.