DETROIT -- If the Tigers keep pitching this well, they'll take their chances. For the first time this series, their chances paid off.
For 25 innings, Indians pitching held the Tigers to six runs, exactly two a game, which explains how they won the first two games and had a fighting chance at a series sweep. Not until a five-run seventh inning could they legitimately relax at salvaging a game from Cleveland with a 7-1 win Wednesday night at Comerica Park that kept them a game behind the White Sox in the American League Central.
It was the big inning they've been lacking for most of the season, and it nearly matched their entire output for the rest of a three-game set in which Cleveland pitchers put the Tigers' offense to sleep. As wildly inconsistent as that was, their pitching gave them a chance for the entire homestand.
If the Tigers are going to win this division race down the stretch, manager Jim Leyland figures, their pitching beyond dueling aces Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer is going to be the basis for giving them a chance.
"You've got two guys at the top, and certainly [Doug] Fister's an excellent pitcher," Leyland said. "If you get a little better than average performance from those [other] two guys, that's pretty good.
"Our pitching is going to be the thing that'll hang us in there -- not that we can't hit, because we can. But at the end of the day, you have to stop the other team and give yourself a chance to win. I'm a firm believer in that. Normally on our team, if you've got a nine-inning game and you only give up three runs, I think on our team we're supposed to win that game."
Normally, they should. For two days, they didn't. The way they're pitching, they'll take their chances.
Take away Fister's wild return to the rotation in last Friday's opener against the White Sox -- and Fister did as much as he could Wednesday to make that a distant memory -- and the Tigers held Chicago and Cleveland to 10 runs over this turn through the rotation. Their starters combined for five runs, seven earned, over 34 2/3 innings -- just under seven innings a start -- with eight walks and 30 strikeouts.
The dueling eight-inning gems over the weekend from Scherzer and Verlander were big-game, dominant performances that left A.J. Pierzynski joking they could've shut down the 1927 Yankees. Quieting an Indians lineup missing so many key parts isn't nearly the same task.
It's still a sign of progress for a back-half rotation that at times has been its own biggest challenge.
Fister, whose return from a groin injury last Friday featured a season high of four walks over five innings, recaptured something like his usual command Wednesday. His lone walk was a sixth-inning pass to Asdrubal Cabrera, whom Prince Fielder promptly erased with a deft grab and throw to start an inning-ending double play off the bat of Carlos Santana.
Fister had a few other three-ball counts mixed in, including a 3-0 count to Cord Phelps with two on and two out in the fourth while nursing a 2-1 lead, but recovered each time. In Phelps' case, Fister threw three consecutive fastballs -- the first two fouled off to run the count full, the last spotted on the inside corner for a called third strike.
"I feel like we're definitely making some strides," Fister said. "There's still some fine-tuning that we need to get done."
The way Fister pitched, the difference for most of the game came down to the small decision of a hit-and-run play from Leyland once Austin Jackson led off the opening inning with a bloop single. It's a tool Leyland will use on occasion to spark a hitter to make contact as much as to advance a runner. In this case, it saved them from what would've been a sure double play once Andy Dirks grounded to second.
"I wanted to push a little bit," Leyland said. "We almost caught a bad break. If it had been hit just a little harder, they would've turned the double play, but Jackson made it. I thought Dirks did a terrific job."
That left a runner on when Miguel Cabrera belted his 35th home run of the year. It was Cabrera's second two-run homer in as many nights, and it gave the Tigers their first lead of the series.
Jimenez cruised from there, allowing just two singles until Dirks' one-out triple in the eighth scored Jackson again and set him up to score on a Cabrera fly to right off Cody Allen. Fielder followed with a drive off the top of the bullpen dugout in left for his first home run since Aug. 26.
Jimenez, who hadn't seen the end of the sixth inning since Aug. 9, lasted 7 1/3 innings for the first time since July 2, yet fell to 0-4 in his last five starts.