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CLEVELAND -- The Indians spent the past two weeks sprinting in place, winning game after game yet losing ground in the standings.
Each day, as Cleveland further built its case as a playoff contender, another Tigers win played on loop on the out-of-town scoreboard.
Monday night, the Indians watched their AL Central rivals win again — only this time at their expense, and depending on your rooting interest, in the most wrenching or stirring way possible.
Alex Avila hit a game-winning three-run home run as the Tigers rallied for four runs in the ninth inning to push back Cleveland 4-2 before a crestfallen crowd of 24,381 at Progressive Field.
The Tigers (65-45) won their ninth straight and 13th of 14 to move four games ahead of the second-place Tribe (62-50). The Indians fell for just the second time in their last 12 games.
In the opener of an anticipated four-game series between the two most blistering teams in the AL, Cleveland relied on a flashy defense and another tour-de-force start — this one by Corey Kluber — to place a 2-0 lead into the hands of closer Chris Perez.
But the Tigers quickly reversed the script. Prince Fielder led off the ninth with a double and scored on a single by Victor Martinez. Avila then followed a walk to Andy Dirks with a 389-foot homer to left-center.
"Man, that was a big hit," outfielder Torii Hunter said. "We’re having a lot of fun right now."
Perez, who began the night with a 0.95 ERA since returning from the disabled list June 27, was yanked without recording an out and was booed off the field. Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit pitched a perfect ninth for his 13th save.
"You don’t get to a good closer very often, and tonight we were fortunate enough to," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.
Perez’s thoughts? He was not available to speak with reporters.
For the Indians, this one was a right hook to the gut — the same way no win this season has given the Tigers a greater high.
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For eight innings, Cleveland had put forth a complete effort.
Kluber held the Tigers to six hits while striking out six over 7 1/3 innings — Hunter called his mid-90s heat and sharply commanded secondary pitches "nasty" and "filthy" — while his teammates behind him provided whatever help needed. Take your pick on the Indians’ defensive highlight: Michael Bourn’s on-the-run catch at the center-field wall; second baseman Jason Kipnis’ plays up the middle; left-fielder Michael Brantley throwing out Hunter at second as he tried to stretch a single; or the rundown that doused a Tigers rally in the eighth inning.
"That was a great baseball game," Leyland said.
The Indians, too, appeared to do just enough against Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez, who allowed two runs on four hits and struck out 11 over 7 2/3 innings. Jason Giambi hit a run-scoring single in the second inning and Carlos Santana hit a two-out RBI double off the right-field wall in the fourth.
Yet ultimately, it was not enough.
"This is the team that’s chasing us, so we were fighting," Hunter said. "You would think down 2-0 we might roll over and say, ‘We’ll get ’em tomorrow.’ But we were fighting."
Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera visibly labored in his first start in five games after resting an abdominal strain and finished 1 for 4 with a walk. Victor Martinez led the Tigers with a three hits, while Hunter and Ramon Santiago each added a pair of hits apiece.
Brantley went 2 for 4 with a pair of runs scored for the Indians.
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