CLEVELAND -- Not even game-winning home runs are going right for the Indians these days. Grady Sizemore appeared to have hit just such a home run Friday night. His high fly to center field seemed to be a two-run shot to overcome Justin Verlander and the Tigers in the opener of a three-game set at Progressive Field. But wait. Why was pinch-runner Josh Barfield suddenly hustling back to first? And what was center fielder Curtis Granderson doing pulling the ball out of his glove and tossing it back to the infield?
If it weren't for bad luck, the Tribe would have none at all. Granderson had leapt at the wall to haul in the would-be homer and create a highlight-reel moment that summed up a game and a season to date in the Tribe's 1-0 loss. "Obviously, he made an unbelievable play," manager Eric Wedge said. "That's the game. When you're struggling, it does everything it can to bring you down. That's why you've got to stay strong and be tough and fight through it." Cliff Lee knows a thing or two about fighting through tough times. He's mired in a four-start stretch in which he's gone 0-3 and gotten exactly two runs of support from his offense. And Lee's defense let him down in this one, too. The lone run he allowed was the result of second baseman Luis Valbuena's mistake in the eighth. Valbuena double-pumped on a routine grounder and was unable to throw out a streaking Clete Thomas, and the infield single allowed Granderson to score from third with two outs. It should also be noted that Granderson only made it to third after safely stealing second on a play that was too close for comfort. "It's a game of inches," Lee said. "You can look at the ball Grady hit, and that will show you right there. We've got to take advantage of every situation we get into and keep the other team from executing. That's what's going to turn us around." Lee and Verlander once again executed to the best of their abilities on this night. Just five days removed from their duel in Detroit, they decided to stage another one, and both might have been even better the second time around. Verlander had no-hit-type stuff again. In fact, the only hit allowed through the game's first six innings was on Asdrubal Cabrera's first-inning liner to left. And even that hit was snuffed out when Cabrera mistakenly tried to advance to second on the play and was gunned down. The Tribe's only other baserunner in that six-inning span came when Valbuena walked in the third. The Indians didn't get to Verlander again until the seventh, when Victor Martinez launched a one-out double off the 19-foot wall in left field. But when Shin-Soo Choo was retired on a sinking liner to shortstop Adam Everett, Martinez was caught off the bag and easily doubled up. Lee had a few more baserunners, but his bottom line was the same for much of the game. Through seven innings, he allowed just six hits and a walk. "It was one of the best games I've had [this year]," Lee said. "I felt good with where I was at -- throwing strikes, locating, mixing pitches. I felt good the whole game." But Lee wasn't feeling quite as good after the eighth. He walked Granderson with one out. Granderson moved to second on the stolen base and to third on Placido Polanco's groundout to short. Lee got what he wanted when facing Thomas with two out -- a grounder right to Valbuena at second. But the rookie fielded the ball, double-pumped and fired to first baseman Martinez, too late to get the out. "It looked like [Valbuena] had trouble getting a grip on it," Wedge said. "He plays hard; he's a smart ballplayer. This [mistake] is going to toughen him up a little bit. He's going to play this game for a long time." That was little consolation for Lee in the moment. He returned to the dugout and threw his glove against the wall in frustration. "I felt I did everything I could to give the team a chance to win," he said. "So many other aspects of the game are out of my hands." And it was the ball that landed in Granderson's glove in the ninth that did the Indians in. Valbuena tried to atone for his mistake by drawing a leadoff walk, and he was retired when Kelly Shoppach grounded into a fielder's choice. Barfield pinch-ran for Shoppach, and up came Sizemore, who had hit the ball hard in his previous at-bats with nothing to show for it but a pair of flyouts. But when Sizemore connected with a Verlander fastball, the crowd of 27,516 stirred with excitement. Cue the fireworks? Cue the celebration at home plate? Nah. Cue the heartache. "I wasn't going to be camped underneath it at the wall," Granderson said. "I said, 'OK, it's still going. Just give me a chance to jump for it.' And sure enough, I had a shot. If it's a foot higher or a foot further, I've got no chance of catching it." Just the Indians' luck. Granderson caught it. And Cabrera went down swinging for the final out. The Tribe's postgame locker room was a ghost town, very much resembling the basepaths against Verlander. But what Lee said rang true. It is, indeed, a game of inches, and the Indians continue to put together a season that doesn't measure up to expectations.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.