CLEVELAND – The Detroit Tigers suddenly look vulnerable. They need someone, anyone, to step up before their lead slips away completely.
And Justin Verlander is just that guy.
Following a 10-3 thumping by Cleveland, the first-place Tigers will turn to their ace on Thursday night to try and prevent a three-game sweep and keep the hard-charging Indians from getting any closer to the top of the AL Central. The Tigers' lead has been cut to two games, and that's as tight as they want it to get.
Manager Jim Leyland knows he can trust Verlander. He's not so sure about Detroit's slumping offense.
"When you get into the situation we're in, it is not about the standings, but more about the way we're playing," Leyland said after the Indians beat the Tigers for the 13th straight time at Progressive Field. "We're not playing bad, but we don't have much offense. It's been that way the whole trip, starting in Kansas City."
Newly acquired Ubaldo Jimenez showed why Cleveland traded for him, winning his home debut, and rookie Jason Kipnis went 5-for-5 with four runs and three RBIs as the Indians pounded out 18 hits to handed Detroit its third straight loss.
Jimenez allowed three runs and six hits in eight innings. The right-hander had little trouble taming the Tigers, who dropped to 2-6 against Cleveland. The Indians acquired Jimenez in a blockbuster deal at the July 31 deadline to help them win the division, and the bold move is already paying off.
"He's a talent," Leyland said. "He was impressive. He was at 91 (mph), 92, 93 all night and when he needed 94 and 95, he had that, too."
Jimenez had it all. Tigers starter Rick Porcello (11-7) had little.
Porcello was tagged for eight runs and 11 hits in 3 2-3 innings, not the performance the Tigers were hoping for after exhausting their bullpen in a 14-inning loss on Tuesday.
"It was a poor effort on my part," Porcello said. "I was not able to make needed adjustments. I was not thinking right. I got out of rhythm and never got back in."
Leyland didn't disagree with his starter's assessment.
"Rick just wasn't good," Leyland said. "You can't sugarcoat it. His stuff wasn't there."
In Thursday's series finale, the Tigers will turn to Verlander, who is having a Cy Young-caliber season. He's been nearly untouchable of late and pitched a two-hit shutout with 12 strikeouts against the Indians in Detroit on June 14. The Tigers may need a repeat performance.
Trouble is, Verlander hasn't always had the Indians' number in Cleveland. He's just 11-11 with a 4.82 ERA in his career against them, and only 4-8 with a 6.31 ERA in 13 starts at Progressive Field.
"You always feel confident with him pitching," said Victor Martinez. "The thing is, we're confident about this entire team."
The Tigers will likely be without left fielder Brennan Boesch, one of their top run producers who left in the third inning with a sprained right thumb. Boesch will undergo an MRI on Thursday, and knows his thumb isn't right.
"After my first at-bat, I knew I should get it checked out," said Boesch, who struck out in the first against Jimenez. "It was the swing and miss that did it. If I can't swing, what good is it to stay in?"
Kipnis hit a two-run homer in the second. He added three singles, a double and became the first Cleveland rookie in 59 years to get five hits and score four times. Jim Fridley did it on April 11, 1952, at Philadelphia.
Jimenez, who got a no-decision at Texas last week, had the Tigers tamed from the outset.
He struck out leadoff hitter Andy Dirks and then Boesch before running Magglio Ordonez's bat through his personal wood chipper, shattering his bat on a routine groundout. Jimenez mowed down Motown's team in the second, and when he took the mound in the third, he had a four-run cushion.
"That shows you a lot right there," Martinez said of Jimenez's sawing off the Tigers' bats. "He's got an outstanding fastball."
Kipnis' sixth homer in just 58 career at-bats — a towering shot that sailed just inside the right-field foul pole — gave the Indians, who won the series opener in 14 innings, a 4-0 lead in the second.
But the Tigers, limited to two hits through three innings, began to figure out Jimenez.
They rallied with two outs to score three runs in the fourth, getting an RBI triple off the wall in left-center from Ryan Raburn and a two-run double into the gap in right-center by Wilson Betemit to close within 4-3.
However, the Indians responded with four runs, and Detroit never got back in it.
Now it's up to Verlander to make sure they stay ahead.
Notes: Porcello had a five-game winning streak snapped. He was 5-0 in six previous starts since July 3. He dropped to 4-1 in nine career starts vs. Cleveland. ... Detroit outrighted LHP David Purcey to Triple-A Toledo. He began this season with Toronto, was traded to Oakland in April and dealt to the Tigers on May 27 for INF Scott Sizemore. Purcey went 1-2 with a 7.23 ERA in 19 relief appearances for Detroit. ... Indians OF Michael Brantley has a sore right wrist that has been bothering him for more than a week. He visited a hand specialist, who feels a few days of rest could help the leadoff hitter. The Indians don't think he'll have to go on the DL. ... The Indians tied a season-high with seven doubles.