CLEVELAND -- There is a growing sense inside the Indians' clubhouse that, even with slightly more than two months to play, the season is on the line. Every game Cleveland plays for the remainder of the schedule could arguably be described as the biggest game of the year.
That rang true on Tuesday, when the red-hot Tigers roared into town to open a three-game series with the Indians. Tribe starter Ubaldo Jimenez provided six scoreless innings, and a clutch squeeze bunt from Aaron Cunningham overcame a slip by the bullpen, leading the Indians to a 3-2 victory at Progressive Field.
"Everybody knows what we're playing for," Jimenez said. "Everybody knows that we're trying to compete and trying to win the division. If we want to do it, we have to start right here, with these guys."
The Tigers came in riding a five-game winning streak and with 13 wins in their previous 15 games, propelling them into first place in the American League Central. Cleveland, on the other hand, had dropped four of its past five and has been mired in third place for much of the past two weeks.
This was the type of game Cleveland had in mind when it pulled the trigger on the blockbuster trade that brought Jimenez to the Indians from the Rockies on the eve of last summer's July 31 Trade Deadline. With a week left until this year's Deadline, the Tribe sits in limbo, determining the best approach to this season's trade market.
"Definitely, this series is big," said Indians closer Chris Perez, who notched his 28th save of the season with a clean ninth inning. "If we got swept, we're seven out of first place. If we sweep, we're two games out maybe? That just sounds better."
With the win over the Tigers, the Indians cut their deficit in the division to three games. Detroit and Chicago -- the other team ahead of Cleveland in the standings -- have already made some moves on the trade front. The Indians, while adding utility man Brent Lillibridge from the Red Sox on Tuesday, have yet to make a big splash.
Further closing the gap in the AL Central this week could convince Cleveland the time has come to make a push. Then again, in a market muddled by a multitude of contending ballclubs, especially with two Wild Cards in each league now, pulling off a major trade might be more difficult.
The clock is ticking.
"I don't see anything big on the horizon," Perez said. "It might be a piece here or a piece there -- like Lillibridge. Maybe a starter that's not on anybody else's radar. It seems like the same four or five teams are trying to go for the same guys. We usually don't win those battles."
For now, Cleveland is trying to win the battles on the field.
Jimenez walked away with a no-decision, but the right-hander blanked Detroit's bats over six frames, scattering seven hits and sidestepping trouble at a handful of turns. He allowed the leadoff man to reach in five of the six innings he worked and escaped unscathed each time. That included a near-costly gaffe behind him in the sixth.
With one out and a runner on first base, Brennan Boesch sliced a pitch from Jimenez down the left-field line, where the ball dropped to the grass in front of left fielder Johnny Damon for an unexpected base hit. Unfazed, Jimenez induced a flyout off the bat of Jhonny Peralta and then forced catcher Alex Avila to ground out to halt the Tigers' potential rally.
"I thought Jimenez was the best I've seen him since he joined Cleveland, against us," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "He had a good split. But we had some chances. We just couldn't do it."
The Indians grabbed a 2-0 lead through four innings against Detroit right-hander Doug Fister, who allowed an RBI single from Damon in the second and an RBI double from Carlos Santana in the fourth. Detroit was able to counter in the seventh inning, following Jimenez's exit.
With two outs, Indians sidearmer Joe Smith issued a walk to Quintin Berry and then watched slugger Miguel Cabrera crush a 2-0 offering to deep center field. The ball carried over the wall for a two-run shot (Cabrera's 24th blast of the season) that pulled the game into a 2-2 tie.
"It was just a matter of time," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "There's only so many times you can get Cabrera out with runners on base. He's amazing. He made us pay."
Cleveland had one more trick up its sleeve, though.
In the home half of the seventh, designated hitter Travis Hafner, who had no triples between 2008-11, collected his second three-bagger of 2012 with one out by sending a pitch from Fister off the wall in left-center field. As Hafner hustled around the bases on his surgically repaired right knee, his teammates shouted from the dugout.
"All I heard was my ears ringing," Hafner said. "I was running hard, and I just wanted to make sure it kept going, and kept going, and kept going."
Hafner made it with a headfirst slide and was pulled in favor of a pinch-runner, backup catcher Lou Marson. At the plate was Cunningham, who replaced Damon a half-inning earlier in left field. Cunningham squared around to bunt as Marson sprinted toward home, and placed a pitch from Fister perfectly in front of home plate.
Fister ran in and gloved the ball, but his relay to Avila was wild, allowing Marson to score on the play, putting Cleveland ahead, 3-2. That slim lead was sufficient for setup man Vinnie Pestano and Perez to use to their advantage over the next two innings, sealing an important win for the Indians.
"To be able to do something," Cunningham said, "to come in late in the game like that, and be able contribute, it's unbelievable."
And given Cleveland's current circumstances, it seemed crucial.
"It's important to win the first one," Acta said. "And, also knowing that you're playing the team that is leading the division, you don't want to be too far back. You just cut down a game here and a game there. We just have to continue to take it one at a time.
"We have a lot of games left still."