CLEVELAND – Six weeks ago, a hard-to-believe comeback win over Justin Verlander had the Cleveland Indians thinking this might be their year.
An epic collapse followed — 36 losses in 46 games.
And the Indians can't stop their descent.
On Friday night, Verlander pitched seven shutout innings, getting defensive help from beefy infielders Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera who snuffed Cleveland rallies and Detroit stayed one game behind first-place Chicago in the AL Central with a 4-0 win over the Indians.
After beating Verlander 5-3 on July 26, the Indians were within 3½ games of first, and as they left Progressive Field that day, Cleveland's players and fans rode an emotional wave they thought would continue.
Instead, it crashed.
"That's too far away," Indians manager Manny Acta said when asked if he reflected on this season's high point during his club's latest loss. "I don't think anybody's thinking that far back. We're trying to keep things in the present."
Detroit took a 4-0 lead after two innings against Cleveland starter Corey Kluber (1-4), who managed to hang around for five innings after two shaky ones.
"I had a plan to attack the hitters and they had a plan to attack me," said Kluber, who has struggled early in several starts. "I haven't realized it fast enough."
Coming through the way he almost always does, Verlander (14-8) allowed six hits and delivered another dominant performance. But if it wasn't for diving stops by Fielder and Cabrera, big men best known for their powerful bats, the right-hander could have been in trouble.
"Game-saving plays," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "Everybody's going to talk about defense, but those guys made terrific plays on the corners."
Verlander had been scheduled to pitch Thursday in Chicago against White Sox ace Chris Sale. But rain postponed the series finale and marquee pitching matchup, pushing the AL's reigning Cy Young winner back. The one-day delay didn't have much affect on the Tigers' top gun, who on a chilly, October-like night, pitched as if it was the postseason.
Verlander needed some help, though, and got it from the unlikely pair of Fielder and Cabrera, beefy corner infielders who both came up golden with their gloves.
The Indians didn't get a runner to second until the fifth, when Casey Kotchman blooped a leadoff single and went to third on Lonnie Chisenhall's double.
Cleveland was threatening, but Verlander hardly seemed frightened.
He got Matt LaPorta on a weak tapper in front of the plate for the first out, then struck out Ezequiel Carrera, setting him up with a 99 mph fastball for strike two and then locking him up with an 89 mph change-up.
Jason Donald followed with a hard grounder down the first-base line that Fielder stopped with a dive that carried him from the infield dirt onto the grass in foul territory. From his knees, Fielder tossed the ball to Verlander, who raced over to cover first. As Fielder got back to his feet, Verlander gave his 275-pound-plus teammate a congratulatory bump.
"It wasn't hit hard, but those are the balls that can create into chaos because it got right down the line," Fielder said. "I was glad I was able to get it."
In the sixth, the Indians put runners on second and third with one out. Verlander got Russ Canzler to fly out, and Cabrera ended the inning by making a backhanded diving stop on Kotchman's line-hugging smash before bouncing up and throwing to first for the final out.
Verlander raised his right fist in the air and held it there as he waited in the middle of the infield to swat Cabrera on the backside as he ran to the Tigers' dugout.
"That's a huge pickup," Verlander said of the two stops. "When you're out there on the mound and you're battling and one of your teammates makes a play like that, that's teamwork at its best. Obviously, I was pretty pumped up about it."
After winning just once in his past six starts, Verlander came in with a season-high 2.91 ERA. All he needed was an outing against the inept Indians to drop it back down to 2.82.
The defending AL MVP lost his two previous starts to Cleveland this season, including the July 26 game when he gave up four runs in the seventh and lost 5-3. Verlander had also been winless on the road since July 15, going 0-3 with a 6.46 ERA in five outings.
Verlander took the mound with a 2-0 lead after the Tigers strung together four two-out singles off Kluber.
Notes: Donald was hit on the right wrist by Verlander in the seventh. The Indians said X-rays are pending. ... Indians SS Asdrubal Cabrera missed his fifth straight game with a sprained right wrist. Cabrera, who injured himself nearly two weeks ago, received a cortisone shot. Manager Manny Acta is hopeful Cabrera will be back in the lineup at some point this weekend. ... Indians OF Michael Brantley missed his second game with a strained chest muscle he hurt swinging in the batting cages in Texas. He's expected back during the series. ... Cleveland was shut out for the 10th time.