Hafner homers, Indians close in on AL Central crown
CLEVELAND (AP)—Above his locker, Victor Martinez proudly taped a poster showing the brackets of a baseball video-game tournament that he recently competed in against his teammates.
He won it.
And he and the Indians are close to winning something else.
Travis Hafner hit a three-run homer, Martinez had a solo shot and Cleveland unloaded for four homers off Detroit ace Justin Verlander on Tuesday night in a 7-4 victory over the Tigers, whose reign as AL champions is nearing an end.
Now 19-5 since Aug. 25, the Indians raised their lead in the AL Central to 6 1/2 games over second-place Detroit, which may have needed to sweep the three-game series to have any shot of catching Cleveland.
The Indians’ 41st come-from-behind win dropped their magic number to five for clinching the division—and a first playoff appearance since 2001.
“It’s pretty cool. It’s right there,” said starter Jake Westbrook, who got roughed up in five innings but managed to keep the Indians close. “The offense really picked me up. They never let it get away.”
The Tigers, who came in riding a five-game winning streak, also dropped 4 1/2 games behind New York in the wild-card race.
“When you are chasing thoroughbreds, there is very little room for error,” Tigers closer Todd Jones said. “Anybody can do the math. They have really turned the screws. You can tell that they feel they are close and they want it.”
But the Indians, who also moved within one-half game of Boston for the AL’s best record, aren’t icing down the champagne just yet.
“I’ve been around long enough to know not to take anything for granted,” manager Eric Wedge said. “I preach it, so I’ll live it.”
Both of those were lopsided losses to the Indians, who beat the right-hander three times this season.
He’s 16-3 against everyone else.
“This was a very tough loss,” Verlander said. “I had a lot on my shoulders and I wasn’t very good. Every mistake I made got hit. I’ve got six losses and three are to them. I don’t know if it is something they’re doing or something I’m doing.”
The Tigers, who lost 6-5 in 11 innings on Monday, had their chances early against Westbrook. But they stranded 10 runners over the first five innings and then didn’t put another runner on until Placido Polanco got hit with a pitch with two outs in the eighth.
Following the game, manager Jim Leyland didn’t need long to explain what happened.
“All his (Verlander’s) soft stuff was up and they capitalized—hit it over the fence,” said Leyland, who spoke for about 20 seconds before reporters shuffled out of his office. “We probably should have scored 10 runs. We had Jake on the ropes. It was a poor job of hitting. That pretty much sums it up, OK?”
Martinez, Cleveland’s steadiest hitter all season, snapped a 4-4 tie in the sixth with his career-high 24th homer—and fourth in 24 at-bats off Verlander. All four homers have come on fastballs.
Martinez credited the Indians’ patient approach against Verlander for the club’s success against the right-hander.
“We keep with our plan and die with our plan,” he said.
Kenny Lofton kept the sixth alive with a two-out single and Gutierrez crushed the first pitch from Verlander, who dropped to 1-4 in five starts at Jacobs Field.
Westbrook was fortunate to get a no-decision as the Tigers tagged him for three earned runs and a season-high 12 hits in five innings.
The Tigers led 4-1 in the fourth before Hafner hit his 23rd homer, an estimated 429-foot shot with two outs.
If the Tigers were still stinging from Monday’s tough loss, they didn’t show it.
They took a 1-0 lead in the second on Ramon Santiago’s RBI single, and then loaded the bases with no outs in the third on three consecutive singles off Westbrook, who got two quick outs before walking in a run and giving up two more.
But by the time Westbrook was pulled, the Indians had come back and tied it.
Now, they may be leading for good.
Casey Blake felt a tad guilty for his celebration while circling the bases following Monday’s walk-off homer. But if he thought about apologizing, Leyland, who sprinted onto the field last week when Detroit scored four runs in the ninth to beat Toronto, said not to bother. “Did you see me? That doesn’t offend me one bit,” Leyland said. “Casey Blake and the entire Cleveland team is a class act. I don’t have any problem with that. I’d have celebrated, too.” … The Tigers lead the AL with 540 extra-base hits, six shy of matching the club record set in 1929. … Cleveland is 11-6 vs. Detroit.