Niyo: Tigers stars vs. Indians scrubs goes Detroit’s way

John Niyo, The Detroit News

Detroit — They can’t beat the Cleveland Indians.

The Columbus Clippers, though, they can handle.

So call this a reprieve if you want, or maybe a rebate. But whatever it was, and whoever that was on the field masquerading as the AL Central Division champs Tuesday night, they were a sight for sore eyes for Tigers fans.

And maybe — just maybe — the Indians’ hangover can be the Tigers’ cure as they try to shake off a staggering weekend and scramble into the postseason, bucking the odds in what looks to be a three-team race for the final wild-card berth.

Tuesday night certainly was a step in the right direction, as Cleveland mailed one in and Justin Verlander and his teammates took full advantage, winning a 12-0 laugher before a crowd of 25,696 at Comerica Park.

With five games left, the Tigers are now one game behind Baltimore — a 5-1 loser in Toronto on Tuesday — and a game clear of Seattle, which coughed up a lead in Houston. And while there’s little, if any, margin for error at this point, there’s more than a glimmer of hope here — “When you’re one game back, anything can happen,” manager Brad Ausmus said — thanks in part to Detroit’s remaining schedule, which included Tuesday’s unscheduled exhibition game at Comerica Park.

Indians manager Terry Francona rested two-thirds of his regulars less than 24 hours after Cleveland clinched its first division title in nearly a decade. The Indians’ postgame celebration had lasted well into the morning, and the batting order Francona posted in the vistors’ clubhouse Tuesday afternoon looked more like a split-squad spring training lineup.

The first baseman was making his first start of the season. The shortstop was making the first start of his major-league career. The second baseman was claimed off waivers last month, while the third baseman was a backup catcher.

Abraham Almonte, a career .251 hitter, was batting third Tuesday night, right behind journeyman Michael Martinez, a career .198 hitter. The No. 9 batter entered the game with one career base hit.

And Verlander, who has been dominant since July 1 with a 2.02 ERA over 17 starts, simply overpowered that lineup. He allowed just four hits in 7 2/3 innings while striking out a season-high 12 — his eighth double-digit strikeout outing of 2016 — as he cruised to his 16th win of the season.

“The guys made it easy on me tonight,” he said, referring to his teammates, though he just as easily could’ve been talking about the opponent. “And that was nice to have, when we needed it most.”

Nick of time

Miguel Cabrera did most of the damage early, driving in five runs in his first two at-bats, including a three-run missile he fired into the bushes above the center-field wall in the second inning. That gives him 35 homers and 102 RBIs this year — Cabrera’s eighth 100-RBI season in Detroit, tying a franchise record.

And that was enough to chase the Indians’ rookie starter, Mike Clevinger, as the free-swinging Tigers, who also got a three-run bomb from Justin Upton in the seventh and a two-run shot from Andrew Romine in the eighth, finished with 16 hits.

Tigers hammer Indians, move one back of Orioles

So, no, they’re not done yet. And the reasons go beyond a lineup that has produced 67 runs the last nine games, a lineup that also saw third baseman Nick Castellanos return after a seven-week absence Tuesday night.

Castellanos, who fractured his hand Aug. 6 and has been rehabbing in the instructional league the last 10 days, played in an intrasquad game in Florida earlier in the day, hopped a Delta flight to Detroit, arrived at the ballpark in the sixth inning, and made it down to the clubhouse just before Upton’s homer.

“Once I saw the score I thought for sure he’d give me an at-bat,” said Castellanos, who talked at length Tuesday night about just how agonizing the last month-and-a-half has been. “So I was getting undressed and dressed as fast as I could.”

He didn’t waste any time once he stepped into the batter’s box in the eighth, either, ripping a ground-rule double down the left-field line and then scoring a run.

If he’s right and swinging the bat well, obviously that could be a big boost to the offense,” said Ausmus, who sounded ready to pencil him in at third base Wednesday.

If he does, it’ll be the first time the Tigers manager has filled out a lineup card with his best nine to start a game since June 11 in New York, nearly 100 games ago. They all played in the same game on Aug. 3, as J.D. Martinez hit a pinch-hit homer in his first game back from the DL after missing six weeks with a fractured elbow. But that same night, Cameron Maybin suffered a sprained thumb, an injury that idled him for the next three weeks.

“It’ll be good to have the lineup back intact,” Ausmus said.

Pitching puzzle

Francona figures to have his regular lineup back on the field today, too. But he has shuffled his rotation to prepare for the postseason. So instead of regular Trevor Bauer, he’ll give reliever Zach McAllister Wednesday’s start — he lasted one inning in an impromptu bullpen day in Toronto earlier this season — and then go with lefty Ryan Merritt, a September call-up, on Thursday.

“But we still have to beat whoever they put on the mound,” cautioned Ausmus, who’ll counter with Michael Fulmer today and another youngster, Daniel Norris, on Thursday.

After that, he remains noncommittal for the three-game series in Atlanta, other than to say Verlander will be on the mound for Sunday’s regular-season finale — the last game ever at Turner Field — likely opposite Julio Teheran, the staff ace for the NL-worst Braves. As for Friday and Saturday against the Braves, “we just haven’t made a decision yet, about who we’re going to go with,” Ausmus said. “We’ve got three choices for two spots.”

Matt Boyd, Jordan Zimmermann and Buck Farmer were the three options he listed, and the first two struggled mightily in their last starts: Zimmermann rocked for six runs in an inning on Sept. 10 and Boyd giving up four runs without recording an out Sunday. Farmer, meanwhile, took the loss Monday as the Indians clinched the division title.

“We just gotta see how it plays out,” Ausmus said.

And they’ve got to play it out, of course, no matter who they’re facing. But a little help in that regard is always welcome. @JohnNiyo