Sabathia gets a lift from Tribe's bats
Hafner collects four RBIs and Martinez hits go-ahead blast
CLEVELAND -- Travis Hafner is back, Victor Martinez never left, and an Indians offense with both sluggers clicking is a dangerous thing.That's the lesson the Tigers learned Thursday night at Jacobs Field, as the Indians rode some big contributions from their Nos. 3 and 4 hitters to an 11-5 victory in the opener of a four-game set between the AL Central's top two clubs. The Tribe's offense hadn't exactly been punchless and panic-stricken during Pronk's slump. Sure, he hit just .229 during the club's nine-game road trip, but the rest of the lineup kept generating runs. In this game, though, the onslaught came against one of the division's toughest pitchers in Justin Verlander, and it was a merciless attack that lasted deep into the night. "It makes a big difference [when Hafner's hitting]," Martinez said. "When he's hitting, they really have to pitch around him. And when you play with fire, you're going to get burned." Hafner burned Verlander early, smacking a 1-1 pitch into the foliage behind the center-field wall to give the Indians a 2-0 lead in the first. "I hit that one pretty good," Hafner said modestly of the 430-foot blast. But the Tigers hit C.C. Sabathia pretty well in the early going, too. They roughed him up for a run in the second on Craig Monroe's solo shot and three more in the third, which was capped by an RBI double off the left-field wall by Gary Sheffield that made it 4-2. Both Sabathia and Verlander were enduring the obstacle of facing the same team in consecutive starts. "[The hitters have] a slight advantage [in such situations]," Sabathia said. "They know what you did the last time, they watched the tape and it's fresh in their heads what you tried to do against them. I tried to do the same thing over again, and obviously it wasn't working the first three innings." But Sabathia (8-1) had Hafner and Martinez working behind him, and that would prove to be enough. In the fifth, the Indians put two on with none out for Pronk, and he grounded a single up the middle to bring both runners home. With that, it became clear that Hafner was out of whatever mess he had been in. "I actually felt pretty good the whole road trip," said Hafner, who was hitting just .217 at home coming into this game. "I just wasn't getting very good results. My swings have been better the last week or so. It's nice to start seeing some results." Hafner's exploits resulted in a tie ballgame. But it didn't stay tied for long. Martinez, who has helped carry the offense on days Pronk has come up short, followed up the big single with an even bigger knock. Verlander fell behind in the count, 2-1, and Martinez took his fastball offering into the Indians' bullpen in right-center field to put the Tribe back in front, 6-4. That marked Martinez's seventh straight game with an RBI, and it again proved the Indians weren't awestruck by Verlander's upper-90s heat. "[Verlander] was kind of wild today," Martinez said. "He got behind in the count a lot. He throws hard, but when you get behind, it's hard to throw your fastball by hitters." After his shaky start, Sabathia began to do a better job of getting his pitches past the Tigers. Martinez's sacrifice fly off reliever Tim Byrdak in the sixth gave Sabathia a 7-4 cushion, which came in handy when he allowed another run in the eighth. But any worries the Indians might have had about enduring another late-inning nail-biter with the Tigers were quickly dissipated in the eighth. They unloaded with a four-run inning off an unsuspecting Jose Mesa, with Grady Sizemore's two-run triple off the center-field wall placing this one in blowout territory. "That was a situation where we were going to go to [closer Joe] Borowski or [Rafael] Betancourt," manager Eric Wedge said. "We were able to go to Rafael Perez and stay away from those other two guys. That's something that does not go unnoticed." What also can't go unnoticed is the Indians' early triumphs over the Tigers. They're now 4-0 against the defending AL champs, not to mention their 13-4 record in division play and 3 1/2-game lead in the standings. "We've played really well in the division," Hafner said. "We have a lot of games left, and we have to keep it going. But to play this well early is exciting." The thought of a hot Hafner in an already productive Tribe lineup can't be too exciting for the rest of the league. "He's really the guy we work around," Wedge said. "Victor's been such a powerful force in the four-hole. He's really picked us up. But Haf [producing] in that three spot makes a tremendous difference."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.