DETROIT -- The time for downplaying the significance of these games against the Tigers has come and gone for the Indians. The time to acknowledge what everyone else around baseball already knows has arrived. "Certainly," Tribe third baseman Casey Blake said, "when you're playing the team below you [in the standings], it's huge." Just as huge, then, was what Blake and the Indians accomplished in Tuesday night's opener of a three-game set between the AL Central's top two clubs.
Blake's 11th-inning solo homer off Jose Capellan was the crowning moment in the Tribe's 5-4 victory at Comerica Park. But this was a game that demonstrated the depth, tenacity and, perhaps, the sheer fate that seems to surround this club in a dramatic first half. The Indians, you see, didn't just win this game when Blake's blast cleared the left-field wall. They won it when Jason Michaels made a perfect throw to nab Gary Sheffield at the plate in the third inning, preventing the Tigers from adding early insurance to a one-run lead. They won it when manager Eric Wedge sent in Ben Francisco, a right-handed batter, to pinch-hit for the right-handed Michaels in the eighth, and the rookie responded with a game-tying homer. They won it when Tom Mastny retired Carlos Guillen and Ivan Rodriguez with the bases loaded in the 10th. And they officially won it when Joe Borowski slammed the door shut on his 25th save, eclipsing the Tribe's team save total from 2006. Now, the Indians' lead on the Tigers in the Central standings is at three games, thanks to a win that felt far from ordinary. "That game could have gone either way," starter Paul Byrd said. "We could have easily lost that game, but we made pitches when we had to." Byrd pitched the Indians into a 4-3 deficit when, with the bases loaded and two out in the fifth, he surrendered an RBI single to Guillen. But when Michaels threw a perfect strike home to Kelly Shoppach on the play and Sheffield was caught trying to turn Guillen's knock into a two-run hit, the game's momentum began to shift. In the eighth, the Tribe was still down a run when, with one out, Tigers manager Jim Leyland inserted the right-handed Chad Durbin into the game, with Michaels due to hit. Wedge, whose finger seems to gravitate toward the right buttons the past week, decided to sub in Francisco, who is traditionally tough against right-handed pitching, for Michaels, even though the left-handed Trot Nixon was also available on the bench. Sure enough, Francisco lined Durbin's first pitch fastball over the left-field wall for his third homer in eight career big-league at-bats. "That's a good way to start a career, I guess," Francisco said with a smile. For Wedge, his rare pinch-hit procedure turned out to be a good move. "Obviously, Ben has swung the bat well," Wedge said. "They brought the right-hander in, and I felt Benny was our best option there." The 4-4 tie gave the Indians the option of winning this game late. Rafael Betancourt pitched two scoreless innings to preserve that tie and push the game into extras, but not without controversy. The Tigers had instructed second-base umpire Doug Eddings to keep an eye on the time it takes the notoriously slow-working Betancourt to make a pitch, and the pitcher was twice issued an automatic ball for eclipsing the allotted 12 seconds. That infuriated Wedge, who argued with the umps over those ball calls. "In a close game like that, they shouldn't be out there looking for something," Wedge said. "They shouldn't be nit-picking." The Indians missed a chance to pick up a lead in the top of the ninth, when Bobby Seay struck out Travis Hafner with two on. And they went down quickly and quietly against Capellan in the top of the 10th. So in the bottom of the 10th, when Mastny gave up consecutive one-out singles to Placido Polanco and Sheffield, the Tribe looked to be in serious jeopardy of dropping this series opener. Mastny threw a wild pitch that put both runners in scoring position, forcing him to intentionally walk Magglio Ordonez. But Shoppach, whose heads-up guarding of the plate on the wild pitch prevented further damage, sensed calm in the young Mastny. "When it gets tougher on him, he seems to step up and get better," Shoppach said. "At no point did I think he was nervous." Mastny got Guillen to pop out weakly to third. And in a game-defining, eight-pitch at-bat with Rodriguez, in which one pitch was lined just right of the right-field foul pole, he got Pudge to hit a comebacker to the mound for the final out. "I was pumped," Mastny said. "I was relieved to get out of it." The Indians made the rest look easy. With two outs and none on in the 11th, Blake lifted Capellan's 0-1 hanging breaking ball out to left to put the Tribe ahead. And in the bottom of the inning, Borowski struck out Sean Casey and Craig Monroe and retired Ingle on a popout to end the game, putting the finishing touch on a stretch in which he's notched four saves and a win in five appearances over the Tribe's last six games. The Indians, meanwhile, picked up their 13th win in a one-run game, their fifth win in an extra-innings game and, above all else, their sixth win in eight tries against the Tigers. Not to mention that extra game in the standings. "It's a huge win," Blake said. "We know we have a lot of games left, but we'll take it."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.