Indians need wins like this
Cleveland tops Detroit to move into first place in division
DETROIT -- It's still too early to take stock in where they are or put too much stock into who they're playing.But for the Indians to contend for the American League Central title this season, they know they're going to have to win games like the one they claimed Friday night. Fending off a late surge from a feisty Tigers offense, the Tribe opened a 10-day stretch against the defending AL champs and the AL East-leading Red Sox with a 7-4 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 40,074 at Comerica Park. That crowd was beginning to stir in the seventh, when Paul Byrd let the Tigers back into a ballgame the Indians had led, 5-1. "It was," Byrd said, "like flicking a match on gasoline." Setup man Rafael Betancourt, however, doused the flames, and the Indians piled on a couple runs in the ninth to ice it. In manager Eric Wedge's mind, chalk the end result up as, simply, a satisfying start to a stern stretch after a disappointing series in Kansas City. He's not really into the idea of late-May litmus tests. "This is the first game of a series," Wedge said. "We can't look at it beyond that. We're playing a team in our division who we're going to play quite a bit." But this is no ordinary division team, of course. It's a Detroit club that beat Cleveland in 13 of 19 meetings last season en route to a 95-67 record. Getting a leg up now has to count for something, doesn't it? Byrd seemed to think so. "A win now is worth two in September," Byrd said. "The Royals took two of three from us. This isn't a division where you can lose too many series. It's important to get off to a good start." The Indians had no trouble in that department on this night. They jumped all over Tigers left-hander Nate Robertson with solo homers from Casey Blake and Victor Martinez in the first inning and a two-run shot from Josh Barfield in the fourth. That all added up to a 4-1 lead the Indians handed to Byrd. "To get the early lead takes the pressure off the pitcher," Barfield said. "Nate Robertson is a good pitcher, and we did a good job of battling, getting into good hitters' counts and taking good swings." But for all the balls that sailed over the wall in the early going, it was the one that didn't that really stood out. Clinging to a 2-1 lead with two on and one out in the second, Byrd left one up to Craig Monroe, who sent it sailing to left. Monroe shook his head as he ran to first. He didn't feel he got all of the pitch. But left fielder Jason Michaels thought otherwise. "Monroe's got good power," Michaels said. "My first reaction was to go right to the fence." Sure enough, the ball kept carrying. And with a leaping grab at the wall, Michaels hauled in what would have been a three-run homer. "Whatever ups he has," Wedge said, "he used to bring that one back." Said Michaels: "I was pumped up." The Indians pumped their lead up with Barfield's blast -- his first homer since the season-opening series in Chicago. They further inflated it in the top of the sixth, with Grady Sizemore's RBI single making it 5-1. Byrd, aided by Michaels' grab, cruised through his first five innings, so that lead looked safe. The Tigers, though, would prove otherwise. Consecutive doubles from Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen and a line-drive single from Ivan Rodriguez allowed the Tigers to chip away with two runs in the sixth. And in the seventh, when Monroe connected on a solo shot to left that Michaels had no chance of robbing, it was a one-run ballgame. "I threw too many strikes," Byrd said. "When I got to an 0-2 count, I tried to throw nasty pitches, instead of relaxing. I threw too many hittable pitches when I was ahead in the count." For the Indians to stay ahead in this game, especially after Byrd gave up a one-out single to Curtis Granderson before leaving the game in the seventh, they knew they'd need some heroic work from the bullpen. Enter Betancourt. Before the game, Wedge had talked about the Indians' need for someone new to step up and take some of the late-inning pressure off Betancourt and Tom Mastny. But on this night, Betancourt was just fine on his own. He got No. 2 hitter Placido Polanco to strike out and No. 3 hitter Gary Sheffield to line out to end the seventh. "I didn't want to get to [cleanup hitter] Ordonez in that inning," Betancourt said. "The first key for me is to throw strikes." He threw more in the eighth, retiring the middle of the Detroit order -- Ordonez, Guillen and Rodriguez -- to preserve the one-run lead. And when the Indians added on in the ninth with a rare RBI triple from Travis Hafner and a sacrifice fly from Jhonny Peralta, Joe Borowski's save opportunity in the ninth was of the three-run variety. "A lot of good things happened," Wedge said. "It was a hard-fought game." And whether it's late May or late September, those are the games the Indians know they have to win.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.