DETROIT — The Cleveland Indians turned to their ace Sunday in search of his ninth win. The Detroit Tigers summoned an emergency starter who manager Jim Leyland had never heard of before this season to make his major league debut.
The way life is trending for these rivals, you can probably guess the result.
Rookie starter Jose Alvarez’s day ended with a clubhouse shower of beer and water while the Indians, fresh off another sweep, were left to quietly pack up and wonder where their once-promising season had gone.
On a day where the unsung became the sung, the Tigers shoved aside the Indians 4-1 before a sold-out crowd of 41,262 at Comerica Park.
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Alvarez, called up from Triple-A Toledo to fill in for starter Anibal Sanchez, carried a no-hitter into the fifth and went six innings. Then, after Leyland told him, "Good job, kid," the 24-year-old left-hander retired to the third-base dugout and watched utilityman Don Kelly deliver the game-winning punch.
Kelly golfed a three-run homer to right field off Cleveland’s Justin Masterson to nudge the Tigers ahead 4-1 and ensure Alvarez a winning debut. Alvarez held the Indians to one run on three hits over six innings — the strongest statistical big-league debut by a Tigers pitcher since Justin Thompson’s in 1996.
Kelly, who entered the game batting .190, called the rookie “tremendous.”
Alvarez’s reward? A return ticket to Toledo.
“Not often you send a guy down after pitching like that,” Leyland said.
For Detroit and a pitcher who was a minor league castoff signed by the Tigers in the offseason, the circumstances lent the day a storybook feel. For Cleveland, it was just one more day to forget.
The Indians have lost seven straight games, 11 straight on the road, and 15 of 19 overall. They began the stretch atop the AL Central with a 2½-game lead over the Tigers. On Sunday, Detroit moved 5½ games ahead of the Indians — a margin larger than the Tigers enjoyed at any point last season.
“We played well, and we probably caught them at the right time,” Leyland said. “Hopefully, we can bottle this up and take it out on the road.”
Alvarez, of course, will not be joining them, optioned to Triple-A immediately afterward as the Tigers recalled reliever Evan Reed from the Mud Hens. He knew the deal beforehand, and was just happy to get an opportunity he could not have envisioned.
Alvarez had not pitched above the Double-A level before this season, and was 14-20 the past two years in the Marlins’ organization. But he found new life with the Tigers. In Toledo, he was 5-4 with a 2.42 ERA and 76 strikeouts over 74⅓ innings.
It was more of the same Sunday. Though Alvarez felt his nerves encroaching beforehand — “I want to lie to you and say I didn’t,” he said — he kept the Indians out of sorts from the start with a precisely commanded low-90s fastball, slider, and curve. He struck out five through the first three innings, and did not allow a hit until former Tigers and Mud Hens utilityman Ryan Raburn clubbed a solo homer to left with two outs in the fifth.
In all, Alvarez struck out seven, walked one, and allowed only three balls to leave the infield. Even from right field, Torii Hunter said he could see Alvarez’s pitches “moving like crazy.”
“If he was nervous, he didn’t show it,” said Alex Avila said.
Alvarez became the first Tigers pitcher to earn a win his major-league debut since Alfredo Figaro in 2009. He also thoroughly outpitched Masterson (8-5), who was vying to tie the league lead with a ninth victory. The Indians right-hander allowed four runs on six hits in seven innings.
Alvarez, meanwhile, was greeted in the clubhouse afterward by booze-spraying teammates. The once-anonymous pitcher then dressed in a locker stall without a nameplate and headed back for Toledo.
“When you start getting crazy after a game like this, you start putting extra pressure on the kid, and I don’t want to do that,” Leyland said. “The kid pitched a heck of a game. He made a very good impression. We know that we have something down there. But I don’t want to get carried away. Let the kid enjoy this.”
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.