“It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”
On Twitter: @Castrovince
It was there when Chad Durbin shook off a season ERA over 6.00 to turn in three of the more important innings of the season Tuesday night, after the rain rushed Justin Masterson the scene.
It was there when Jason Kipnis ran around the bases like a mad man in a five-hit night to back Ubaldo Jimenez’s home debut Wednesday.
It was there in Asdrubal Cabrera calling out Carlos Santana after the latter’s error led to a run Thursday, a brief dugout skirmish ensuing between teammates in a moment of competitive fire that received the managerial seal of approval.
It was there in the Tribe faithful hoisting “We Are All Kipnises” signs or waving their souvenir white T-shirts in the air like rally towels, trying to drown out the cries of the Detroit fans who made the trek on the turnpike.
A playoff series was played at Progressive Field this week, whether or not the calendar confirms it.
For the Tigers, the three-game set was an opportunity to build on a four-game lead that somehow felt like bounteous breathing room, given the claustrophobic tendencies the American League Central had shown.
For the Indians, though, this was about as must-win as a series can be in early August, and the urgency was apparent.
“We’re the ones trailing,” manager Manny Acta had said before it began. “We’re the ones that have to close the gap and not allow them to get too far away.”
The gap is now three games, in the wake of Justin Verlander doing what Justin Verlander does best. The Cy Young favorite prevented a sweep and snapped a skid, for the Tigers’ losing streak in this ballpark had reached a baker’s dozen before he took the mound Thursday night.
Yet even with Verlander on the hill, the Indians did force the issue in a one-run loss. Give Verlander the win and Austin Jackson the assist for his game-saving catch of Santana’s fly ball to the wall in straightaway center in the sixth, preserving the 4-3 lead.
What we have here, folks, is a division battle still very much on in earnest. Had the Indians been swept, with their dual aces aligned Tuesday and Wednesday nights, it would have been all-too-easy to figure it a finale to their fairy tale.
Instead, with the Tribe trailing by just two in the loss column and these two clubs set to face each other another nine times, including the season-ending series Sept. 26-28 in Detroit, it’s even easier to see this thing taken to the limit.
“Definitely,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “No question. I don’t think anybody’s going to go away.”
And in case you didn’t notice, that includes the White Sox, who took care of business against the lowly O’s and have won six of seven overall to pull within four games of the Tigers.
So three teams are alive in the Central showdown right now, and, really, this is the only division in which that can still be said. The White Sox have been considered a sleeping giant all season, and perhaps they’ve been yanked out of their slumber just in time.
For now, though, let’s focus on the Rust Belters.
The Tribe was teetering when this series began, having endured what Acta called a “bittersweet” road swing through Boston and Texas. Bitter because late leads were blown in four losses, and sweet because the Indians were in a position to win all seven games against, arguably, the AL’s best.
So when Tuesday’s tussle with the Tigers reached the early morning hours and the extra, extra innings, the threat of dropping another heartbreaker loomed. But the Tribe survived on the might of its bullish bullpen, which turned in 12 scoreless after Mother Nature yanked Masterson.
“After that road trip, just finishing a couple of games is what we wanted to do,” Masterson said. “And doing it against Detroit is even bigger.”
They did it sans drama the following night, with “The Big U,” as Acta calls Jimenez, coming through as advertised and working with ample run support.
The Masterson-Jimenez pairing has the possibility of October intrigue, should the Indians advance. But for now, the task at hand is putting together a healthy and productive outfield.
Shin-Soo Choo returns from a broken left thumb tonight, but he’ll be trying to shake off rust and his first-half slump. Grady Sizemore, a few weeks removed from another sports hernia surgery and a year removed from microfracture knee surgery, likely won’t be at 100 percent when he comes back in September… if, in fact, he comes back at all. And word of Michael Brantley seeing a specialist about his sore right wrist is at least enough to raise an eyebrow.
Here’s something else to raise a brow: The Indians still have doubleheaders looming Aug. 23 against the Mariners and Sept. 20 against the White Sox. More to the point, that latter twin bill is part of a stretch of 17 games in the final 16 days of the season. This young club’s endurance will undoubtedly be tested.
The Tigers, meanwhile, operate on the assumption that Verlander will pick up the pieces in any rough patch. They’ve now won 69.2 percent of the games he starts, and they’re a sub-.500 team when he doesn’t. That’s not quite a one-man show, but it’s about as close as a contender can reasonably come, which is why the Doug Fister trade was so necessary.
Alas, Fister was also lost to the elements Tuesday. That was just part a less-than-inspiring turn through the rotation, with Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello taking a slight step back against the Royals and Indians, respectively, after such a great leap forward in July. Brad Penny was skipped in the midst of a second-half skid so that Verlander would get his turn against the Tribe.
Verlander, of course, can’t face everybody, and in a race as tight as this one, the Tigers will go as far as Fister, Porcello and Scherzer take them. And stop us if you’ve heard this one, but second base is still an issue, as Carlos Guillen’s return from knee surgery has not yet revealed him to be a reflection of his younger self.
With exactly two-thirds (30 of 45) of their remaining schedule coming against Central opponents, including six September games against Chicago, the Tigers do, indeed, hold the keys to their own destiny. And even though this series didn’t go quite as hoped, they’re still in an enviable position, with their manager urging calm.
“It’s Aug. 10,” he said the other day. “That means it’s a month until Sept. 10. And then you still have another 20 days to go after that. So you’ve got to be careful.”
This week, the Tigers could afford that attitude. The Indians? Not quite as much. This was, for them, a playoff-type series, and they treated it as such.
“The Indians aren’t going away,” Leyland said.
Neither are the White Sox. And neither is this division race.