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CLEVELAND — Justin Masterson matched Justin Verlander pitch for pitch for first his career win over Detroit, and the first-place Cleveland Indians did just enough to beat the reigning AL MVP 2-1 Thursday and complete a three-game sweep of the underperforming Tigers.
Shin-Soo Choo homered on the third pitch from Verlander (5-2) as the Indians won for the eighth time in 10 games and opened a six-game lead over third-place Detroit in the AL Central.
Detroit has dropped six of eight, and manager Jim Leyland was ejected in the fifth inning.
Masterson (2-3) entered 0-4 in seven starts against the Tigers. He allowed one run and five hits in seven innings.
Chris Perez put the tying run on in the ninth but got his 16th straight save since blowing one on opening day.
The Indians faded down the stretch last season, when injuries — and the Tigers — overwhelmed them. Detroit won the final 10 meetings between the clubs, but Cleveland has won the first three of 18 against their division rivals, giving more legitimacy to another surprising start.
Last season, Verlander owned the Indians. He won all three starts against Cleveland, and came in 9-1 against them in his previous 12 starts. The right-hander gave up two runs, six hits, walked one threw a 102 mph fastball on his 116th pitch as if to remind the Indians that they’ll see him again.
Perez saved all three games in the series, which began with him defending harsh comments he made about Cleveland’s fans not supporting their team.
He gave up a one-out single in the ninth before retiring Andy Dirks on a popup with the dangerous Miguel Cabrera on deck. Perez punched the air after the final out as the Indians landed the first blow in what is shaping up to be a more interesting division race than many expected.
Detroit stranded 30 runners in the series and went just 3 of 28 with runners in scoring position.
Masterson was on the ropes in the seventh, but danced out of self-inflicted danger.
He walked No. 9 hitter Danny Worth leading off and then compounded his problems by making a throwing error when he fielded Quintin Berry’s bunt but hit him with an underhanded toss to first. Masterson struck out Dirks, and with the beef of Detroit’s order coming up, manager Manny Acta made his way to the mound for an apparent pitching change.
Even reliever Joe Smith assumed he was coming in and began running in from the center-field bullpen before realizing Acta was sticking with his starter. Masterson then retired Cabrera on a fly to center before stabbing a hard shot through the middle by Fielder and throwing to first for the final out.
Vinnie Pestano worked a perfect eighth.
Consecutive bloop singles with two outs gave the Indians a 2-1 lead in the fourth.
First, Michael Brantley dropped a single into short right and stole second before Jose Lopez placed one in front of right fielder Brennan Boesch, who didn’t bother making a throw to the plate.
Frustration has been building for the Tigers, who were expected to run away with the division but find themselves trailing two teams.
Leyland was ejected after coming to the defense of first-base coach Tom Brookens, who got into an animated argument with first-base ump Paul Emmel. Brookens appeared to be contesting that Masterson had balked on a previous pitch and he gestured wildly with his arms before being joined by Leyland, who got out only a few choice words before Emmel had heard enough.
In his previous start, Verlander came within two outs of his third career no-hitter, a performance Leyland described as “probably the best game I’ve ever seen pitched.” Only Josh Harrison’s single up the middle denied Verlander from adding another gem to his stellar resume.
Choo quickly ended any suspense whether Verlander would repeat his flirtation, crushing the right-hander’s third pitch into the second deck in right — a 454-foot shot. Choo is batting .350 (14 of 40) in 10 games since moving into the leadoff spot.
NOTES: Verlander has pitched at least six innings in 52 straight starts. It’s the longest streak in the majors since Steve Carlton did it for 69 consecutive starts from Sept. 13, 1979 to April 13, 1982. ... Indians RHP Josh Tomlin reported no problems after throwing a 50-pitch simulated game in the bullpen. He’s been on the disabled list with a sore wrist since May 12. ... Indians DH Travis Hafner was not in the starting lineup after fouling a ball off his right foot in Wednesday’s game. ... Tigers OF Austin Jackson missed his seventh game in a row with a strained abdominal muscle. It’s likely the leadoff hitter will be placed on the disabled list. If he does, his .414 on-base percentage — third-best in the AL — will be missed.