CLEVELAND -- All that remains is the coronation. The Indians have all but disposed of the second-place Tigers, who came into this three-game series at Jacobs Field needing, at best, a sweep or, at worst, a series victory to remain alive in the American League Central title race. With Tuesday night's 7-4 victory, built on the might of the long ball, the Tribe captured the series win and upped its lead in the standings to 6 1/2 games. The magic number for clinching the crown is down to five.
Barring a catastrophic collapse -- and the sports-tortured city of Cleveland always braces itself for such things, as a general precaution -- the Indians have put themselves in prime position to wrap up their first division title and playoff berth since 2001. And as this win further proved, they're playing with little intention of letting up. "You can see it," Tigers shortstop Ramon Santiago said. "They're inspired. You can see their record. It's one of those years, like we had last year. Everything went our way. They've been able to do that. It's unbelievable. They're playing great." On this night, the greatness came from the bats, which pounded Justin Verlander into submission, and from the right arm of young Jensen Lewis, who earned his first big-league victory with three solid innings in relief of Jake Westbrook. Picking up where they left off in Monday's dramatic, power-driven victory, the Indians got downright homer happy against Verlander. Ryan Garko, Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez and Franklin Gutierrez all took him deep, with each blast a little more crushing to the Tigers' playoff hopes than the last. Home runs, as the Indians demonstrated, come in bunches. "They're like bananas," Hafner said. "I know, on an individual basis, that when you're swinging the bat well, you hit a lot of balls on the sweet spot. You find that groove." Garko found his groove with a second-inning solo shot that traveled 412 feet into the left-field bleachers, tying this game up at 1. Westbrook, looking a little rough around the edges, let the Tigers momentarily take over in the top of the third. They loaded the bases against him to set up Marcus Thames' RBI walk. Another run came across on Santiago's RBI single to right, and a third scored when Gutierrez's throw to the plate from right was dropped by Martinez. The Tigers' outburst made it 4-1. But the lead didn't last long. In the bottom of the inning, Grady Sizemore and Asdrubal Cabrera both drew walks from Verlander, and Travis Hafner smacked his 1-1 changeup deep into the seats in right-center field for a three-run blast that tied it up at 4. "That was a very big part of the game," manager Eric Wedge said of Pronk's blast, "because it got us right in that ballgame. That's what you need when you're down early." Hafner's heroics were not treated like an ordinary homer. He drew a standing ovation from the frenzied, sell-out crowd of 41,103 fans, and he greeted them with a curtain call. "This is a lot of fun right now," Hafner said. "Everybody on the team and in the city is enjoying it." Westbrook obviously wasn't enjoying his inefficient outing, which lasted just five innings. To his credit, though, he didn't allow further damage after the third, even when the Tigers put two aboard with two outs in the fourth and fifth innings. "He never gave into the fight," Wedge said of Westbrook. "He had to work his butt off to get through those five innings. And when he left the ballgame, it was a tie ballgame." It remained that way, thanks to the hard-throwing Lewis' ability to tame the heart of the Tigers' lineup in the sixth, when he retired Gary Sheffield, Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen in succession. "He went beyond the call of duty," Wedge said. Actually, Lewis felt he was just doing his duty. "You have to treat every opportunity like the ninth inning," he said. "You have to go out there with a closer's mentality, put up zeros and give your offense a chance." In the bottom of the sixth, the offense responded. Martinez led off the inning, hammering his career-high 24th homer of the season into the bleachers to put the Tribe in front to stay. It was Martinez's fourth career homer off Verlander, and he didn't have to think long and hard about the pitches he's hit out against last year's AL Rookie of the Year. "All fastballs," Martinez said. "I have, and we have, a lot of respect for Verlander. But he left a couple pitches up in the zone, and we put good swings on the ball." One more good swing remained. It came after Kenny Lofton singled with two outs. Verlander tried to sneak an 0-1 fastball past Gutierrez, and it was promptly pummeled 434 feet into the bleachers -- the longest shot of the night -- to put the Tigers away for good, 7-4. Verlander had come into this game 4-0 over his last four starts, with just three runs allowed in that span. But after this game, he was 1-3 with an 8.13 ERA against the Indians. The three defeats account for half of his losses this season. "He's one of the best in the league," Hafner said. "He has tremendous stuff. We did a good job waiting for a good pitch to hit. We didn't try to do too much." Not much else happened after Gutierrez's game-sealing smash. Lewis continued his dominance through the eighth, and Joe Borowski finished the job with a perfect ninth. One game remains in this series, but a point has already been made. The Indians have no intention of letting the Tigers back in this thing in the season's home stretch. "They feel like they're close," Tigers closer Todd Jones said. "We helped them with that by letting them win those first two games of the series, but they're a pretty darn good team."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.