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CLEVELAND — Terry Francona would not be in Cleveland if he was one to duck a challenge.
The Indians manager is also a sound man, and this week’s visit from the Detroit Tigers represented the rare exception.
"I think I would actually rather see their Triple-A team,” Francona said, smiling.
The Mud Hens seemed a fairer fight. Detroit arrived with the best record in baseball — off to a start surpassed in franchise history only by the Bless You Boys of 1984 — while the last-place Indians were inspiring widespread apathy. Only 12,709 fans scattered throughout Progressive Field on a clear, 65-degree night Monday.
Yet for one day, the Indians played the part of a major league club.
Despite the late-inning star turn of a former Mud Hens slugger, Michael Brantley’s solo homer to right field gave the Indians a 5-4 win in 10 innings.
After 23-year-old Indians rookie Jesus Aguilar followed the first hit of his career with a go-ahead sacrifice fly in the seventh inning, pinch-hitter J.D. Martinez tied the game with a one-out solo homer in the ninth.
It was just the latest charmed stroke for the Tigers, who appeared on the brink of their 12th straight road win despite not arriving at the park until about 4:20 p.m. after plane troubles stranded them in Boston the night earlier.
Martinez walloped the 1-0 fastball off Cody Allen just over the center-field wall, his first homer of the season but the latest in a flood of them this year. He hit 10 homers in 17 games with the Hens before being called up last month and remained on the roster for just this moment.
"A guy comes off the bench cold and hits a 96-mph fastball, that’s good baseball,” Allen said of Martinez, who began the night batting .231 (9-for-39). “It wasn’t the best pitch, but it wasn’t the worst. You have to tip your cap.”
Meanwhile, the blast was just another dagger for the Indians, who had turned to Allen as part of their new closer-by-committee arrangement to end a four-game losing streak — and punctuate a much-needed strong starting effort. Corey Kluber mostly held down baseball’s best-hitting team, allowing three runs on eight hits over seven innings.
This time, though, the Indians had the parting shot, with Brantley sending a full-count pitch off reliever Al Alburquerque screaming to right field for the game-winner. Brantley carried his bat almost all the way to first base as he watched his team-high ninth homer fly over the fence.
"What can I say?” he said. “I was excited.”
And so were his teammates, who spilled onto the field. The Indians picked a good time for their first walk-off victory over the Tigers in two years.
“It’s huge, especially at the start of a big series, a big rivalry,” Brantley said. “Hopefully it’s a momentum booster, and we’ll ride that momentum.”
The Tigers will answer with their biggest momentum stoppers, with Justin Verlander starting today and reigning Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer going in the series finale on Wednesday.
Monday was the rare off night for their often untouchable starting rotation.
In a year where the Tigers’ starters have made the game seem frighteningly simple — Detroit pitchers had 18 quality starts in the past 19 games — Drew Smyly veered and took the scenic route. He labored through an all-night stress test, allowing three runs on seven hits while walking five over five innings.
His high wire finally gave way in the fifth. Attempting to escape major trouble for the third straight inning, he allowed two-out run-scoring hits to Nick Swisher and Aguilar that put the Indians ahead 3-1.
After a two-run double by Rajai Davis tied the game in the seventh, Aguilar answered with the go-ahead sacrifice fly in the bottom of the inning.
Victor Martinez hit a solo shot in the second inning for his 11th home run of the season. Miguel Cabrera added three hits and a double for the Tigers.