CLEVELAND -- For one night, there was nothing polarizing about Chris Perez.
A crowd of 15,049 at Progressive Field rose and cheered in full throat Tuesday as the Indians closer jogged across the outfield to open the ninth inning of Cleveland's 5-3 victory over the Tigers
They only got louder.
After Perez retired Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder to escape a tension-filled final inning, the closer pumped his right fist skyward and the fans followed suit.
All was forgiven.
"A good start to the series," Indians manager Manny Acta said.
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Perez stirred controversy last weekend when he blasted Indians fans for not supporting their first-place baseball team, and he did himself no favors early in the ninth inning Tuesday. He walked Ramon Santiago and allowed a single to Andy Dirks with one out, bringing the Tigers' high-paid sluggers to the plate with a chance to put Detroit ahead.
"I really didn't want to see any of those two guys up," Acta said.
But all ended well for Perez and Cleveland. Perez struck out Cabrera before Fielder hit a weak game-ending groundout.
The Indians moved 3 1/2 games ahead of the Tigers in the American League Central.
Unlike last season, when the Indians won 30 of their first 45 games before ultimately falling 15 games behind the division-winning Tigers, Acta expects the race will remain tight all year.
"There are a lot of games left, but I just like the fact that last year I felt at this point we had played our best baseball," Acta said. "You couldn't have played any better than we did the first 45 games. I still don't think we have played our best baseball."
A duel between enigmatic starters Ubaldo Jimenez and Rick Porcello unfolded to a draw for the first five innings. But Cleveland broke a 3-3 tie with back-to-back run-scoring hits, including a one-out double by Jose Lopez that chased Porcello from the game.
Porcello, his place in the Tigers' rotation growing increasingly tenuous, gave up five runs on eight hits over 5 1/3 innings to a lineup stacked with eight left-handed hitters. The 23-year-old right-hander has not lasted through the sixth inning since May 6.
Jimenez, meanwhile, was scattershot as usual, though he ultimately held the Tigers down. Despite allowing six walks and a three-run homer to Alex Avila in the second, Jimenez (5-3) limited Detroit to three runs in six innings.
For the Indians, the victory marked the second straight year they delivered the first salvo in this growing rivalry. Last season, an Indians sweep in the teams' first meeting left the Tigers eight games out of first place.
But the early results flipped on their head the second half of the season. The Indians faded while the Tigers rolled, winning their last 10 games over Cleveland to claim the division by 15 games.
Tuesday offered the Indians an emotional lift if nothing else.
"They have the most talent in the division without a doubt," Perez said of the Tigers. "They haven't started playing ball yet, but you know they're going to. We know how we played against them last year too. I don't want to say they have the psychological edge, but they're feeling good coming in here, beating us 10 in a row. This is a great measuring stick for us."
Contact David Briggs at email@example.com, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.