Cleveland — Now, it’s a winning streak.
The Tigers, who last month began at Progressive Field a nearly six-week stretch of stumbling and bungling, instead carved out a second consecutive victory Friday when they bested the Indians, 6-4, thanks to some long-ball crunch from the muscular Martinezes, Victor and J.D., and a sleek six innings from starter Rick Porcello.
Victor Martinez slammed his 18th home run of the season in the fourth inning, a two-run drive into the seats in right. His partner, J.D., ripped his fourth homer in five games in the eighth, this one an opposite-field rocket to right with two men on base, which at the time turned a 2-0 game into a 5-0 stroll.
Not that the Tigers are much on leisure in 2014. And all because a bullpen can’t seem to behave, as happened a half-inning later when Ian Krol, who had been one of the few relievers regularly minding his manners, got socked for a pair of Indians homers that made it, 5-4, and led to mass hyperventilation across Tigers Nation.
“My stress level got up a bit in the eighth,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, whose team has won back-to-back games only three times since May 19 — but now are back in first place after the Royals lost, 7-5, to the Mariners later Friday night. “With two innings to go, we’ve got to win that game.”
Fortunately for Ausmus and his team, each of which has had better weeks, Joba Chamberlain finished the eighth by striking out Nick Swisher. That allowed Joe Nathan to further craft his mini-comeback by putting away the Indians in the ninth, a half-inning after Detroit got its sixth run on doubles from Rajai Davis and Ian Kinsler.
“For me, it’s throwing strikes, first of all,” said Nathan, who now has 15 saves and who, in his last two games, has struck out five batters in two innings following an ugly streak that featured too many walks and too many crushed pitches.
“But I think my stuff is a lot better,” said Nathan, who made an arm-slot adjustment this week that Ausmus believes has been the difference-maker. “They were licking their chops earlier.”
Of course, if someone was going to hit a pair of home runs to win it for the Tigers, it was going to be their resident musclemen. And, no, Miguel Cabrera has not of late qualified.
Rather, it was going to be the Martinezes, Victor, the supposed singles-and-doubles hitter who in 2014 acts as if he wants a piece of Barry Bonds, and, of course, his namesake, J.D., the masher from Miami who has bashed his way into regular work in the Tigers outfield.
Victor had gotten what became a long, scary night for the Tigers ignited in the fourth. Following a leadoff single from Cabrera, Martinez crafted one of his 2014 trademarks. He took a first-pitch, 93-mph fastball from Corey Kluber and air-mailed it 393 feet into the right-field seats, which thrilled about half the 33,545 customers who were seated at Progressive and who, typically, consisted heavily of Tigers travelers.
The blast was Martinez’s 18th home run of the season and came from a slugger who, for all his widely acknowledged hitting mastery, has never hit more than 25 homers in a single season.
It appeared as if his sidekick, J.D. Martinez, had officially slain the Indians in the eighth when he sent a 95-mph fastball from John Axford deep into the right-field seats. It followed a single by Austin Jackson, a force-out grounder from Cabrera, and an intentional walk to Victor Martinez.
“It’s really the power that stands out,” Ausmus said of J.D. Martinez, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound, right-handed gunslinger who does not turn 27 until August, and who was signed by the Tigers in March after he was cut by the Astros.
“He’s the one guy who can drive a ball out of the ballpark in any area. As far as power goes, he’s the only guy who can compete with Miggy.”
Of course, the Tigers have a bullpen. And their bullpen tends to have issues, if not the occasional self-immolation.
It was Krol’s turn Friday to turn a happy night of baseball for the Tigers into a death-bed vigil. He got hurt by a ground-ball single from Michael Bourn in his bloody eighth, but other wounds were self-inflicted, capped by the pitches Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana crushed to the tune of four quick runs.
“Just an off-night,” Ausmus said of Krol, whose ERA shot from 2.96 to 4.32. “He’s a competitor. He’s not giving in to any hitter.”
A bit of giving-in might have been the better strategy Friday, but apart from some bad fastball location, Ausmus said Krol’s problem was not related to some earlier shoulder stiffness.
Porcello, during his six-inning act, avoided any melodrama.
In recent weeks he had endured his share of black-and-blue marks, in tandem with his team, but Porcello pitched superbly in a summer weekend series opener against a team that smelled Tigers blood, as well as a 2014 playoff ticket.
Porcello lasted 100 pitches, of which six were Indians hits. He struck out six and walked no one. The victory was also his ninth of the season, and if a 25-year-old right-hander isn’t careful, a man who was invariably considered good for 14-15 victories, maximum, could have at least a credible chance at 20.
The story for Porcello was, no surprise, a sinker that tended to end in ground-outs, as well as a four-seam fastball that blended nicely with a tight change-up.
“But it was huge the way the guys played defense,” Porcello said, focusing particularly on sharp plays from his right-side mates, Ian Kinsler, and Cabrera, who handled two-thirds of a gorgeous 3-6-3 double play in the sixth.
“It’s been a big help to know if I throw a sinker to a left-hand batter they’re gonna make a great play.”
Separate from the Krol conflagration, Porcello got some big bail-outs from his bullpen. Al Alburquerque threw a flawless seventh inning, while Joba Chamberlain cleaned up the Krol mess by striking out Nick Swisher to end the eighth.
And that left it for Nathan, so beleaguered as of a few days ago, to move in for a putaway ninth, which featured two strikeouts and a lone bloop single.
Easy, it was not. A victory, it was. And the Tigers, who remember where a 40-day ordeal began in May, could feel good about a two-game winning streak and, they dream, a turnaround they’ve been chasing for the past six weeks.