CLEVELAND -- The back-and-forth battle between the Indians and Tigers on Friday night played out like this summer's American League Central race. Cleveland jumped to an early lead, Detroit pushed back and the Tribe kept pulling away.
In the end, the Indians secured an 11-4 victory at Progressive Field, where Mike Napoli put on a show, ace Corey Kluber held Detroit back and Cleveland improved to 12-1 on the year against the Tigers. The Tribe's magic number is now down to nine, as the club holds a seven-game lead on Detroit with 15 games left on the regular-season schedule. The Tigers fell three games back of an AL Wild Card spot after both the Orioles and the Blue Jays won.
"That's what we're working towards every year," Kluber said, "is to have games like this later on in the year, and hopefully past the regular season. That's what everybody is striving for. So, I think when you get into these situations, after you've worked so hard to get there, it's fun to embrace them."
Justin Upton launched a pair of home runs for the Tigers -- marking his 13th career multi-homer game, and third of the season -- to account for all four runs scored off Kluber. The Indians righty was otherwise effective over his seven innings, striking out seven and collecting his 17th win of the season in the process.
"Kluber's tough," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "Certainly Upton was able to figure him out, but he's tough and he was good today. They stuck it to us."
Napoli belted a home run, came through with an improbable ground-rule double and reached base four times to help power the Tribe's offense. Carlos Santana (two-run single), Roberto Perez (two RBIs), Jose Ramirez (two RBIs) and Jason Kipnis (RBI double) also contributed in the rout for Cleveland.
"I thought we also were aggressive at the right times and took advantage of it," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "But man, it's nice to put a few runs up, because their lineup is so potent. And when they sniff it coming, they get even better. It was nice to put a little distance [between us]."
Napoli's two-run double in the first and two-run blast in the fifth both came off the Tigers' Rookie of the Year Award candidate, Michael Fulmer, who was charged with six runs on seven hits in five innings. It represented the most runs allowed by Fulmer since he gave up six on Aug. 19 against the Red Sox.
"We've been able to do that all year," Napoli said of the Indians' offensive outpouring. "Other teams make mistakes, and we've been able to pounce on them and take advantage. It's especially [good] when we've got Kluber on the mound, scoring some runs and letting him settle in and be able to do what he wants."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Upton and over: With one out and runners on second and third, Napoli sent a pitch from Fulmer towering high into left in the first inning. Upton threw his arms out at his sides, signaling that he lost sight of the deep fly in the lights. The baseball bounced off the warning track behind Upton, and shot back up over the 19-foot wall for an improbable ground-rule double, scoring two runs for the Tribe.
"At first, I thought he was deking the runners," Napoli said. "But, I know at that time of night, fly balls, as infielders you're just trying to point it out. You know it was a fortunate break for us. I'll take it. I was just trying to get it to the outfield so we could score that run." More >
Upton strikes back: After losing Napoli's ball in the lights, Upton answered by losing two line drives off his bat into the seats in right-center field. His second-inning solo shot had just enough altitude to clear the fence as it put Detroit on the scoreboard. His three-run homer in the sixth had more air and more impact, slugging the Tigers back into the game.
"I got two mistakes," Upton said. "That's the bottom line." More >
Party at Napoli's: There was nothing out of the ordinary with the deep fly ball that Napoli sent to left field in the fifth. This one off Fulmer soared over the wall, bounced at the back of the Home Run Porch and skipped out of the stadium for a two-run home run. The shot was Napoli's 34th of the season and pushed the Tribe to a 6-1 lead. Per Statcast™, it had a 108-mph exit velocity and a projected distance of 400 feet.
"For me, a high fastball like that," Napoli said, "I swing at them a lot, but I don't really connect with them. For me to get on top of that one and be able to drive it, I was pretty excited about it."
Many miscues multiply lead: While the Indians slugged their way ahead off Fulmer, they padded their lead with help from Detroit's defense. Cameron Maybin came up with a sliding catch in shallow center field to rob Perez of a bloop single in the sixth, but tried to make another highlight for an extra out and paid for it. Maybin was still juggling the ball as he came up throwing to second base, hoping to double off Abraham Almonte. The throw ended up wide and rolled to the Tigers' dugout as Tyler Naquin scored easily from third on the sacrifice fly. Bruce Rondon's balk an inning later set up Ramirez for an RBI single before Miguel Cabrera's throwing error on a pickoff play moved Rajai Davis to third before he scored another run in the eighth.
"Tonight, that can't happen," Upton said. "That wasn't a pretty game. If we play good baseball and lose, that's one thing. We didn't play good baseball."
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With his strikeout of Cabrera in the third inning, Kluber climbed another notch on Cleveland's all-time strikeouts chart. The Indians' ace now ranks 11th in team history in strikeouts (924), surpassing Addie Joss (920) in the club's annals. Luis Tiant is next on the Indians' all-time list with 1,041 punchouts.
WHAT'S NEXT Tigers:Justin Verlander (14-8, 3.33 ERA) will try to break his hex against Cleveland when he pitches the second game of the series, a 4:10 p.m. ET start on Saturday at Progressive Field. Verlander has lost three times to the Tribe this season, including two of his three highest run totals.
Indians: The Tribe will hand the ball to right-hander Carlos Carrasco (11-8, 3.32 ERA) on Saturday vs. the Tigers. The big righty has struggled of late, allowing eight earned runs on 17 hits in 11 innings over his past two starts. However, Carrasco has given up just one earned run in 17 2/3 innings against Detroit this season.