"The championship goes through Detroit," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "They beat us up pretty good last year, and the whole division. They're a very good ballclub and it's still very early."
If any game seemed to have a tone set very early, it was this one. It was Michael Brantley's three-run homer, and it broke open an opening inning in which he shouldn't have had a chance to hit. An errant drop from right fielder Brennan Boesch had extended the opening inning, and it put a second runner on as Brantley stepped to the plate.
Yet it was also a pitch that starter Max Scherzer didn't get where he wanted.
Or as manager Jim Leyland said, "Max just couldn't pitch above it."
Brantley hadn't hit a home run since last August. As aggressively as he jumped Scherzer's first-pitch fastball, he seemed like he was too far in front of it, powering it down the right-field line. Then the ball hit the foul pole.
"When you're going good, the guy pops up the next pitch [after the error] for the third out of the inning," manager Jim Leyland said. "When you're going bad, the guy hits a home run on the first pitch."
An inning and a half later, the Tigers thought they had a run to start to whittle away at the deficit. Yet former Tiger Johnny Damon -- a designated hitter for much of the 2010 season in Detroit for defensive reasons -- took a jump at the left-field fence and brought back Prince Fielder's opposite-field loft leading off the second inning.
"That's a great play," Fielder said. "There's nothing you can do about that. It's just a good play. I don't care whether you're winning or not, that's a good play. Hang with 'em."
There were other pitches beyond the homer that Scherzer regretted more on a night when he couldn't find the right action on his changeup to disrupt hitters' timing against his fastball.
"What happened in the first inning wasn't why we lost the game," Scherzer said. "Me not being able to execute in the fifth inning was the reason this game got out of hand. They did a nice job of taking some pitches away and doing damage against me."
The Indians scored three runs in the fifth thanks to four singles, three of them ground balls. The crushing blow, fittingly, came from Damon, who made the Tigers pay for intentionally walking Brantley ahead of him by lining an 0-2 pitch into left to plate two runs and build the lead to 8-2.
Those runs ended up being the difference, not the Brantley homer, or the Casey Kotchman two-run shot that came after it. Yet that early stretch seemed to sum up the night.
"He's a guy who can be dominant every time out," Damon said of his ex-teammate Scherzer. "I think, with that error in the first, giving up that home run, it kind of took some wind out of his sail."
Three hits, two of them homers, accounted for seven of Cleveland's nine runs. Detroit's two homers from Don Kelly in the third inning and Miguel Cabrera in the fourth accounted for just two, typifying a stretch in which Detroit's last nine home runs have been solo shots.
They responded to Cleveland's big fifth inning with four runs in the bottom half, but with nothing more than doubles. They couldn't get the home run at the right time, whittling the deficit to 8-6 before Cleveland added a run off Luis Marte.
"We didn't play a bad game tonight," Leyland said. "We had the one miscue and we paid for it, but we did not play a bad game. We didn't pitch very well tonight."
Scherzer had won his last three starts, giving up eight runs over 18 1/3 innings with 30 strikeouts during that span. The Indians put up eight runs, five earned, on seven hits off Scherzer, who walked three and struck out two. Thus, though the Tigers topped four runs for just the second time in their last 10 games, it wasn't enough.
"These are all symptoms of a team that's struggling," Leyland said. "When you score six or seven, the other team gets eight or nine. When you score two, the other team gets three."
It's becoming quite typical against Cleveland, which has won five straight against its AL Central neighbors. They've flipped the script on last fall, when Detroit won 10 straight in the rivalry to take the division.
They're not expecting this script to hold.
"They're battling some injuries right now," Indians setup man Vinnie Pestano said. "They're kind of going through what we went through last year down the stretch, in late July and August. But unfortunately for them, it's happening a lot earlier than it happened to us. So they'll get those guys back for the home stretch and we're probably going to see a different Tiger team in the second half."