The Indians (25-18) sit where they did at this point a year ago -- in first place atop the American League Central. The Tigers are also similarly positioned, as well, though the Tribe is hoping Detroit does not have a similar late-season push in store this season. This time around, the Indians want to prove that bringing a division crown to Cleveland is realistic.
"The title has to go through Detroit," said Tribe manager Manny Acta.
The Indians have been careful, however, not to bill this series as any sort of statement. Still, after taking the first two games in this three-game set -- pushing the third-place Tigers five games behind Cleveland in the division standings -- it is hard not to consider that this could be foreshadowing for the summer ahead.
"For me, it's just another game right now," Indians closer Chris Perez said. "Yeah, we wanted to kind of prove to them that we can compete with them. We know we can, but that 10-game losing streak [against Detroit] last year doesn't really prove that. It's good to come out here and get those first two."
On Wednesday night, Cleveland received another solid effort from right-hander Zach McAllister, who limited the Tigers (20-23) to two runs on eight hits with no walks and three strikeouts over 6 1/3 innings. The pair of runs he yielded came within a chaotic sixth, when a couple of miscues paved the way for Detroit runs.
Kipnis misplayed a chopper off the bat of rookie Quintin Berry, leading to an unlikely leadoff bunt double, Berry's first Major League hit. Right fielder Shin-Soo Choo then misplayed a line drive from Andy Dirks, who netted an RBI double as a result. Dirks later scored on a fielder's choice grounder from Prince Fielder to put the Tribe in a 2-0 hole.
That lead quickly vanished when Travis Hafner launched a two-run home run off Tigers right-hander Doug Fister in the home half of the sixth inning, pulling the game into a 2-2 deadlock. That was the lone blemish in the 6 2/3 innings logged by Fister, and it was a critical blast that helped sway the game in the Tribe's favor.
"That was the game changer for me," Acta said. "Fister was just mowing us down pretty good. He got into a pretty good groove after the first couple innings and I thought it as important that we did that, or he would've cruised the whole way."
The Tigers threatened in the seventh inning, loading the bases with two outs and sidearmer Joe Smith on the hill for the Indians. Smith fell behind, 3-0, against Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera, but then received a questionable strike call to avoid a walk. Cabrera argued with home-plate umpire Jerry Meals before grounding out on the next pitch to end the inning.
In the bottom of the seventh, Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon was ejected for continuing the argument with Meals.
"It was a strike," Acta said of the disputed call. "We went down and looked at it."
Cleveland escaped another dicey situation in the eighth, when the Tigers loaded the bases with no outs against reliever Vinnie Pestano. The right-hander struck out Jhonny Peralta and then induced a fielder's choice groundout from Ramon Santiago. On the play, Santiago chopped a pitch to first baseman Casey Kotchman, who threw Fielder out at the plate.
Pestano then caught pinch-hitting catcher Alex Avila looking on a 3-2 fastball for an inning-ending strikeout. Catcher Carlos Santana caught the pitch, spun out of his crouch and pumped his fist while the crowd inside Progressive Field erupted.
"Man, that's pitching," Perez said. "That eighth inning with Vinnie on the mound, that might've been the loudest I've ever heard it here."
That energy carried over into the home half of the eighth, when Kipnis got things rolling with an infield single that skipped off the glove of reliever Phil Coke. Asdrubal Cabrera followed with a double to left field, setting up Kipnis' mad dash to the plate.
Hafner grounded a pitch to Fielder, who charged in, gloved the ball and threw wildly to Avila. As the baseball skipped away from the catcher, Kipnis used a headfirst slide to score before jumping to his feet and joining the fans with a celebratory shout. Santana then used a sacrifice fly to add an insurance run, giving Perez a bit more breathing room for his 15th save.
It might only be May, but the Indians know these wins could loom large later on.
"I'm not going to say it's just another game," Kipnis said. "But I'm also not going to talk it up to be something more than it is. The players on each side know these might be the two teams that have to see each other down the road and at the end of the year.
"It's always good to get wins against these guys. It doesn't matter if it's in May and it doesn't matter if it's in September. They mean the same now that they do then."