A win Saturday would mean Detroit's largest lead of the year. Even if it's too early to discuss magic numbers, the Tigers have a spell on their closest pursuers.
"I said before the game, we have to just play these games. Cleveland's here," manager Jim Leyland said. "We won the first one, but we just have to keep grinding. There's a lot of baseball left. It's nice that we got a win, but that's just what it is."
They're 14-3 against the Indians this year, and the lopsidedness is the difference in the division race. If it was 10-7 instead of 14-3, the Tribe would be on top. Against all other opponents, Cleveland has outplayed Detroit.
Against each other, the results are no contest.
"They're a good team," Tribe center fielder Michael Bourn said. "I'm not going to take anything away from them. It's not like they're getting lucky all of the time. They're good. They got a good team. That's why they're at the top of the division. We just have to find a way to try to beat them.
"It's not like we lose by a lot. It got open a little bit tonight, but most of the time we play them, it's a 3-1 game, a 5-3 game. One little play is the difference."
The Tigers' four-game sweep in Cleveland a few weeks ago had plenty of those, from Alex Avila's go-ahead home run off Chris Perez to Cabrera's tape-measure shot off Danny Salazar a couple nights later. On Friday, Bourn's misplay on Victor Martinez's two-run double in a four-run third inning might well be a microcosm for the way these two teams have matched up.
Austin Jackson's RBI single had already broken a 1-1 tie in the third inning before Martinez stepped to the plate with the bases loaded. His fly ball on a 2-0 pitch from Tribe starter Zach McAllister (7-8) sent Bourn, who has run down several drives off Tiger bats this season, heading to right-center field.
Bourn raised his arms in confusion as he looked up to try to find the ball, but the degree of that confusion didn't become apparent until the ball fell in left-center, several yards away. Martinez rolled into second base as Jackson and Andy Dirks, who entered the game in Cabrera's spot, scored easily.
"That's one of those unfortunate things that went in our favor," Leyland said. "That happens. We remind our guys all the time about helping, pointing out. I'm sure they did. It's just one of those things. You can talk about that all the time, but sometimes that just can't be helped."
A fielder's choice grounder from Avila two batters later scored Prince Fielder, building a 5-1 lead that Rick Porcello (11-7) protected over 5 2/3 innings despite flu-like symptoms.
If Martinez's double doesn't signify the rivalry enough, though, the play on which the Indians opened the scoring might suffice.
Back-to-back hits from Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley in the second put runners at the corners with nobody out, giving the Indians an opportunity for a breakout inning. Asdrubal Cabrera hit a ground ball toward the hole on the left side of the infield, but his Detroit counterpart at shortstop, Jose Iglesias, made a diving stop to his right and threw from his knees to start a double play.
Santana scored a run, but the double play prevented at least another.
"That's probably going to be second and third again with nobody out, or first and third at worst," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "That was just an unbelievable play. Good players sometimes make good plays. That hurt."
Iglesias, who played for Francona two years ago in Boston, didn't downplay the importance.
"It was a good play, a good double play for us," he said. "We got out of it."
Nor did his current manager.
"That turned the whole game around for me," Leyland said. "It was an unbelievable play."
Porcello gave up a second run after Al Alburquerque replaced him in the sixth and allowed an inherited runner to score on a bases-loaded walk, but two more Tiger runs in the seventh put the game away before an hour of heavy downpours halted the game for good.
Even Mother Nature, it turned out, had seen enough.
"We're all aware of what our record is," Francona said. "I don't think we ever go into a game thinking we're not going to win. There's a reason they beat us. It's because they're good."