CLEVELAND — Justin Verlander gave Detroit exactly what it needed, becoming baseball’s first 17-game winner as the division-leading Tigers avoided being swept by Cleveland and opened a three-game lead in the AL Central with a 4-3 win over the second-place Indians on Thursday night.
Verlander (17-5) allowed three hits and struck out 10 in seven dominant innings to earn career win No. 100 as the Tigers ended a 13-game losing streak in Cleveland. He was also on the mound for Detroit’s previous win at Progressive Field on May 8, 2010.
In taking the series finale, the Tigers kept some distance over the Indians, who did trim one game off Detroit’s lead over the past three days. The teams will play 10 more times this season, including a season-ending three-game series at Comerica Park from Sept. 26-28.
Fausto Carmona (5-12) gave the Indians a solid outing, but they couldn’t do enough against Verlander, who was in control once again in what has been a Cy Young Award-caliber season.
Joaquin Benoit pitched a 1-2-3 eighth and flawless closer Jose Valverde worked the ninth for his 33rd consecutive save, breaking the single-season club record he shared with Guillermo Hernandez, who did it in 1984.
Carlos Santana homered for Cleveland.
After dropping the first two games of the series, the Tigers were counting on Verlander, their undisputed ace who has thrown one no-hitter and flirted with several others this season, to come through.
Relying mostly on his fastball and working both sides of the plate, Verlander had the Indians flailing at air. He also got a big assist from center fielder Austin Jackson, who made a sensational, leaping catch against the center-field wall in the sixth inning to preserve Detroit’s 4-3 lead.
With a runner on first and one out, Santana sent a drive to straightaway center. Jackson sprinted back, tracking the ball with each stride as neared the warning track. He stopped under the wall, jumped and snagged Santana’s deep shot that looked as if it would have stayed in the park. Verlander waved his glove in thanks to Jackson.
Indians manager Manny Acta conducted his pregame meeting with reporters in a room below the Indians’ dugout, where it was less noisy. Acta has lost his voice and could only whisper his comments.
He made it loud and clear, however, that the Indians needed to be aggressive against Verlander.
“You have to try and get your pitch and not miss it,” he said.
He was on the money.
Verlander led 4-0 after the Tigers scored three times in the second. And with one of baseball’s best on the mound, that deficit must have felt like 40-0 to the Indians.
However, Santana hit a one-out homer, his 18th, in the bottom half to give Cleveland new life. Then, some uncharacteristic wildness by Verlander in the third helped the Indians close within one.
Verlander walked No. 9 hitter Lou Marson with one out and put rookie Jason Kipnis on with a two-out walk. Asdrubal Cabrera fell behind 1-2 before pulling a two-run double into the right-field corner. As Cabrera scooted into second standing up, Verlander dropped his head in disappointment.
It was the only time he showed emotion. Otherwise, Verlander was cold and nasty.
He took the mound with a 1-0 lead after the Tigers scored an unearned run in their first at-bat.
Jackson led off with a routine grounder, but third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall’s throw sailed over Santana’s head and into the photographer’s pen. Jackson moved up on a groundout and scored when Magglio Ordonez hit a liner toward the gap that right fielder Kosuke Fukudome snagged with a diving catch.
After the third out, Cabrera and Santana had a heated exchange in the dugout and had to be separated by Carmona and others.
The Tigers made it 4-0 in the second on RBI singles by Alex Avila and Wilson Betemit, and a perfectly executed suicide squeeze by Jackson.
Carmona, who has had many starts unravel because of one bad inning, allowed three earned runs and seven hits in seven innings.
NOTES: Indians OF Michael Brantley missed his second straight game with a sore right wrist. Brantley says he’s fine, but Acta wanted to give him an extra day’s rest. ... The Tigers were without OF Brennan Boesch. He has a sprained right thumb and likely will miss at least a few games. ... The Indians open a three-game series Friday with Minnesota. Cleveland’s Justin Masterson (9-7), who pitched just two innings before being pulled after a 2-hour rain delay on Tuesday, will come back and start on short rest against Carl Pavano (6-9). “He’s such a big horse,” Indians pitching coach Tim Belcher said of the 6-foot-6 Masterson, “he could probably do that every time.” ... The Tigers are off to Baltimore for a three-game series starting Friday.