"You tip your hat to them," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "They've been a little mystery for us this year."
When the Tigers ran away with the division race last year, the Indians played no little role, losing 10 consecutive matchups against Detroit from mid-August on.
The Tigers could win each of their final four matchups with the Tribe and still settle for a split of the season series. It would sure help their chances with the White Sox, though.
The Tigers are the only team in the AL Central currently with a winning record against division foes, but the way they've done it is fascinating. They're 10-4 against the White Sox and 19-18 against the other three teams. They're 5-9 against the Indians despite outscoring them in their games.
They scored 16 runs in their three-game sweep of the White Sox. They scored one run over their previous two games in Kansas City going into that set, and they've lost back-to-back 3-2 decisions since. They haven't led the Indians at any point in this series.
Indians manager Manny Acta couldn't explain it, either. His team had lost 18 of 19 road games coming in.
"You can't pick and choose who you play well against," Acta said. "We want to play well against everybody. It happened that we have gotten good pitching when we played them and have played them well."
Indians starter Justin Masterson was thinking the same thing.
"It's crazy this year," said Masterson, who followed up Corey Kluber's Labor Day win with six innings of two-run ball. "For some reason, some way, we seem to play a little bit better against Detroit. I think the guys feel it."
The last time Masterson faced the Tigers, he took a seven-run, 10-hit thumping over four innings. Yet when he faced them in Cleveland in May, he tossed seven innings of one-run ball and took a 2-1 victory.
"We've seen two different kinds of Mastersons this year," Alex Avila said. "The guy we saw the last start, when they were here last time, they were able to get a hold of, and the guy with No. 1, no-hit kind of stuff today. The fact that we had a chance today, I think most of us felt pretty good about it, because he was just flat-out nasty. Anywhere from 90 to 98 with the same fastball, heavy, slider, he had everything going today."
Leyland stopped short of calling it frustrating.
"It's not frustration," he said. "It's the real world. You've got to win games if you want to get to the postseason."
His hard-luck starting pitcher, on the other hand, was frustrated.
"Yeah, it's frustrating," Rick Porcello said. "I mean, this is a team that we definitely should beat. Obviously, we came up short both days. At this time of year, we need to win games, at least win series against division opponents. We know we're better than them. We have to go out and beat them."
Porcello (9-11) gave up three runs over his first three innings, giving up five hits in a nine-batter stretch of the second and third, before settling in. He left with two outs in the sixth before the Tigers' bullpen held them there, but a dearth of run support again doomed him to his fifth consecutive loss.
The Tigers haven't scored a run with Porcello in the game since Aug. 12 at Texas, the first loss in his streak. His last four losses have been by 2-1 or 3-2 scores.
Porcello was done by the time Miguel Cabrera's 34th home run of the year scored Andy Dirks and made it a one-run game in the bottom of the sixth. Avila's third-inning double and singles from Prince Fielder and Don Kelly comprised the rest of the damage.
"It's funny, because you have to beat good pitchers, obviously, and tonight he was a really good pitcher," Leyland said. "But up here at this level, you've still got to beat good pitchers, and we will. We didn't do it tonight, but that's the way it goes."
Not until the seventh inning did the Tigers put multiple runners on base, and that came on a two-out rally with a Jack Hannahan error and a Joe Smith pitch off Avila's left leg. Smith recovered to retire Omar Infante and end the threat.
Once Chris Perez pitched the ninth for his 34th save, the Indians clinched their first road series victory since taking three out of four in Baltimore two months ago, and their first series win anywhere since they took two of three from the Tigers in late July in Cleveland. The Tigers had just swept the White Sox before that series, too.