The Indians have been one of the hottest teams in baseball over the past few weeks. Unfortunately for the Tribe, the team directly above them in the standings has been almost equally unbeatable.
Cleveland has won 15 of its last 20 games entering this critical four-game series at Progressive Field against Detroit, which still holds a three-game lead in the American League Central despite the second-place Indians' successful stretch. The Tigers hold a 9-3 edge in the season series thus far.
It was pointed out to Indians manager Terry Francona on Sunday that it seems his club and the Tigers have been winning and losing on the same days, as was once again the case on Sunday.
"That won't happen the next four days," Francona said, "at least by my math."
Monday's series opener will feature Tigers right-hander Anibal Sanchez taking on Indians righty Corey Kluber. For Detroit, it's a chance to create some space in the standings. For Cleveland, it's a chance to start making up some ground.
"You play all year to have a series like this be this important," Francona said. "That's exciting. If it's not, you don't have a heartbeat. So, good for us. I want our guys to enjoy the competition, because we're playing the best and this is where we're trying to get. We're within striking distance, and it makes the games really exciting."
Francona noted that it's still too early to get caught up in scoreboard watching, that there's too much time left in the season to fret over the division and Wild Card standings.
"If you start doing math too early, you might flunk," Francona quipped.
But the Tigers are certainly keeping an eye on the Indians, especially considering how well they've played lately. While many people predicted before the season that the AL Central would be Detroit's to lose, Cleveland has made it clear that the division crown won't be easily won this year.
"They've got a real good team. You know they led the division more games than we did last year," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "They've added some veteran guys, some versatility.
"They've got a good team. They had a good team last year. They added a couple of guys. [Jason] Giambi is a veteran presence, [Nick] Swisher, [Mark] Reynolds and [Ryan] Raburn, those guys can play a little bit. They're pretty good."
Tigers: Facing an old friend
• Raburn played seven years with Detroit before the Tigers released him last year. He then went on to sign with Cleveland, where he's enjoying the most productive season of his career. Raburn is hitting .282 with 13 homers and 37 RBIs in 65 games. Raburn's impressive numbers -- including his three homers against Detroit -- haven't exactly shocked his former manager.
"He's a nice player. I take some responsibility for it. When I made him pretty much the everyday second baseman, I think he just got like a deer in the headlights," Leyland said. "I think he just probably didn't feel too comfortable with it because he did a terrific job for us, and everybody in here knows I am a big fan of his and still am a big fan of his. He just got in a rut and I think he got overwhelmed with the second-base thing and it snowballed on him."
• Miguel Cabrera took ground balls and batting practice before Sunday's game and was out of the starting lineup for the fourth straight game due to an abdominal strain, but he entered as a pinch-hitter in the 12th inning, knocking a single to center field. Leyland said Cabrera "felt a lot better," but it was the manager's decision to keep him off the field again.
Indians: Salazar to start Wednesday
• Highly touted pitching prospect Danny Salazar will come up from Triple-A Columbus to start Wednesday's game. He'll be replacing Ubaldo Jimenez, who will now start Friday against the Angels. Francona said the Indians "like the idea of seeing what this kid can do," but Jimenez's struggles against the Tigers -- he's 1-2 with a 6.92 ERA in 13 in three starts -- also played a part in the decision.
"It was some of that," Francona said. "Some of it's competitive and it also gives us a chance to give him a little [rest], too. I think we thought that would help him. There's been some times with [Scott Kazmir] where we've done the same thing. For Ubaldo, I think this will do some good."
• Cleveland's rotation has put together a 2.20 ERA over its last 23 games.
• The Indians lead the AL with 15 shutouts, the most they've had in one year since recording 17 in 1976.
• Sanchez has thrown six innings without allowing more than one earned run in three straight starts.