Cleveland — This game had a September feel to it.
Not because of the weather. This was the nicest night of this miserable four-game series, with the temperature 74 degrees at first pitch. It wasn’t football weather or anything like that.
The tenor of the game, the Tigers’ hapless and hum-drum performance, the look of a team that is woefully undermanned and knows it — it felt like last September all over again. You remember the horror of last September (plus one game in October), right? The Tigers went 6-24 and were outscored 197-107.
This was like that.
The Tigers were swept by the Cleveland Indians, just like they were twice last September, getting put to rout in the finale of the four-game series Thursday, 9-3. It was the team’s 11th straight loss to the Indians and the gap between these Central Division rivals is as wide as it’s been in a long time.
“You’ve got to play good baseball to beat these good teams,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “That’s why they’re in the playoffs every year. This was a good learning experience for us. We’ll get better.”
Like they used to do to former Tigers ace Justin Verlander regularly, the Indians dismantled right-hander Michael Fulmer.
Fulmer had allowed only one run over 13 1/3 innings in his two previous starts, but he didn’t make it through the fourth inning on Thursday.
“He just centered the ball too much,” Gardenhire said. “You saw him yanking fastballs, trying to hit the outside corner and he’d pull it back over the middle of the plate. That’s a really good-hitting team, and when you make mistakes — it doesn’t matter how hard you throw or what you throw — you get the ball up and they’re going to bang it.”
Francisco Lindor started it with an opposite-field, leadoff home run, winning a nine-pitch duel and clobbering a 95-mph fastball.
“Two-seam fastball up and away and he hit up and out to the opposite field,” Fulmer said.
The tone was set. The Indians came hunting fastballs and Fulmer was never able to establish or execute his two-seamer or four-seamer.
The Indians hit Fulmer’s two-seam fastball — his primary pitch — with an average exit velocity of 100 mph, per Baseball Savant. They hit his four-seamer nearly as hard, 99 mph.
“It was one of those games,” Fulmer said. “The command wasn’t there and they were hitting everything. … But no matter what I threw, no matter where I threw it, mistakes, good pitches, they were hitting it hard.”
Fulmer resorted to his secondary pitches. He threw 20 sliders and 18 change-ups among his 72 pitches.
“I don’t think it was his best stuff,” catcher John Hicks said. “I don’t think (his two-seamer) had as much movement. He was in the middle of the plate and they didn’t miss.”
Fulmer fell into hitter’s counts more often than normal, throwing only 46 strikes. He also only got two swings and misses.
A blueprint for a beating.
“I wasn’t getting the balls on the corners enough,” Fulmer said. “The slider wasn’t sharp, the sinker wasn’t moving. These are all adjustments I need to make in-game and I wasn’t able to do that tonight.”
Lindor jumped a 94-mph two-seamer in the second inning and laced a two-run double. Later in the second, Fulmer hung a slider to Jose Ramirez which he lofted into a fairly stiff breeze blowing out to right field. Right-fielder Nick Castellanos took a step in after seeing the ball off the bat. But it kept floating on the breeze, barely clearing the wall.
Fulmer allowed 13 home runs in 164 2/3 innings last season. He’d allowed two in 15 innings at that point this year.
The Indians drove him from the game in the fourth, aided by some shaky defense. The inning started with a bad-hop grounder that Dixon Machado couldn’t handle at second base. After a single and a hit batsman, Jason Kipnis smacked a two-run single.
Left-hander Chad Bell, just summoned from Toledo, came on and should have got out of the inning with no further damage. With one out, he got Michael Brantley to hit a routine foul pop-up toward the stands down the third-base line.
Jeimer Candelario got to the ball easily enough, but dropped it.
Brantley whacked the next pitch off the wall in right field, RBI double.
Fulmer ended up being charged with nine runs and eight hits, but only six runs were earned.
A throwing error by catcher Hicks led to an unearned run in the first inning.
Bell, who was among the final cuts this spring, kept the Indians off the board through the seventh. He left the bases loaded in the fourth, striking out Yonder Alonso with one out and then getting Roberto Perez to ground out.
He wound up throwing four scoreless innings, allowing six hits (all to left-handed hitters, oddly enough) with three strikeouts.
“I thought he was our savior tonight,” Gardenhire said. “We need that. We needed a shot in the arm. That’s why we brought him up and that’s what he did. He did a nice job.”
For the second straight game, center fielder Leonys Martin produced three hits — a double and two singles. He scored two of the Tigers runs, both knocked in by two-out singles by Castellanos.
Those two runs came against Indians started Trevor Bauer. The Tigers added another in the eighth off reliever Nick Goody. Hicks doubled and scored on a double by Machado. It was Hicks’ first hit of the season (he’d been 0-for-8) and Machado’s double ended an 0-for-14 skid.
Good that they kept fighting. JaCoby Jones made a fantastic running catch, jumping into the stands beyond the left-field foul line and Machado followed with a diving play in the eighth — that after the three errors earlier in the game.
“I just think as long as we keep playing,” Gardenhire said. “Even tonight, we got behind early but they didn’t quit in the dugout. They kept rooting for each other, they kept trying to get hits, kept putting guys on base.
“If we keep doing that, we’re going to be fine. These guys have some courage here. I know that. I expect that out of them and they expect that out of themselves. Hopefully we continue to do that, win lose or draw. If we do, we will win enough games.”