'It's a new year': Tigers get upper hand on Tribe
Cleveland — It’s not about what happened last year; that’s not the point. Nothing can be done about the 4-14 record the Tigers endured at the hands of the division-rival Indians.
No, if you ask the Tigers, to a man, the relevance of beating the Indians 4-1 Sunday and winning their first series at Progressive Field since June 2015, was about the here and now.
“It’s a new year,” Ian Kinsler said. “We know they are a good team and we know the Central Division goes through them and we have to win as many as possible against them. But this is more about getting off to a good start.”
The Tigers have won three consecutive series.
“I think it just sets a tone for the rest of the year, more than anything,” said Alex Wilson, one of three Tigers relievers who slammed the door in the late innings. “I don’t think it’s that we’re worried about the Indians, specifically. It’s our third series win in a row, we’re playing good baseball now and if we keep winning series, we’re going to have a great year.”
Catcher Alex Avila, whose second inning, two-run home run got the Tigers off and running, has a little more appreciation for the history of this division, though. He’s been through more of these wars.
“The times when I was here that we were winning, we had to win games against Central opponents,” he said. “That's the key. If you can have a winning record against the guys in your division, that puts you in a good position to try to win the division. Taking a series against the Indians is very important.
“I know last year they struggled playing against them, but that's in the past. It's just a matter of trying to execute and play consistent. I'm sure there's going to be times they're going to own us over the course of the year. They're a real good team. So, it's important to get as many as you can.”
Avila homered for the second time in two games — something he hadn’t done since 2014. He extended the Tigers home run streak to 12 straight games, the longest such streak to start a season since the Tampa Bay Devil Rays did it in 2007.
He also singled and walked twice. He’s reached base eight times in his last nine plate appearances.
“We've been playing pretty good, pretty sound baseball,” he said. “Even in games when our offense hasn't been clicking as a whole, we've been able to figure out how to get some home runs, some big hits here and there. That's important when you're not firing on all cylinders.”
Avila was also a rock behind the plate for starter Matthew Boyd, who he helped guide through six perilous innings.
“What did I like about Matt Boyd’s performance,” Kinsler said, in earshot of Avila. “I liked Alex Avila.”
Boyd did, too.
“I definitely had games with better stuff,” he said. “But we found a way to get it done. Alex called a great game. He got me through it.”
The Indians put nine runners on base against Boyd — seven singles and two walks — but Boyd calmly dodged the landmines. He got Austin Jackson to fly out with two on in the second, struck out Edwin Encarnacion, on three pitches, with two on in the third and got timely double-play balls in the fourth and fifth.
His biggest out, though, was his last, to end the sixth inning.
“Yeah, that was a good out,” he said.
With one out, Michael Brantley and Encarnacion singled and pulled off a double steal. Jose Ramirez’s sacrifice fly made it 2-1 and brought up right-handed hitting Brandon Guyer. It was an eight-pitch battle, with Guyer fouling off two, two-strike pitches.
But Boyd finally struck him out with the best slider he threw all game.
“Boyd pitched really well today,” Avila said. “He struggled at times finding his slider. We really would have liked to get that pitch into the game plan, into the game, early on. But he saved the best ones for the end of that sixth inning.
“He battles out there. The good thing about him is he's not afraid to throw anything at any time. For a catcher, it makes it pretty fun to have quite a few options to play with.”
The Tigers scored two important insurance runs in the eighth — a single by Miguel Cabrera scored one and pinch-runner JaCoby Jones scored on a wild pitch. Cabrera came out of the game with lower back stiffness.
The Tigers bullpen shut it down from there. Alex Wilson and Justin Wilson retired six straight batters in the seventh and eighth, respectively. Each struck out a pair. Closer Francisco Rodriguez worked around a one-out double to earn his fifth save.
“I don’t know if I’d call it grit,” manager Brad Ausmus said of his team’s compete level. “I would call it sense of purpose.”
Rodriguez agreed with that.
“These three games were totally different; you could tell the way the guys battled,” he said. “They never let their guard down. Even yesterday with the loss. Definitely, there’s some weight on our shoulders.
“We need to continue to win series and beat teams in our division.”