CLEVELAND — Check another item off the list in this shocking start to the season for the Indians.
Carlos Santana hit a game-winning grand slam in the ninth inning Friday night off reliever Joaquin Benoit to power Cleveland to a 9-5 victory in the series opener against Detroit.
The Indians have accomplished plenty already en route to their first-place standing in the Central Division, but this was their first walk-off victory of the season.
“Right now, they can’t do anything more to impress me or shock me,” said manager Manny Acta, whose team won its 11th straight home game to improve to an American League-best 17-8. The 17 wins are the most in franchise history over the first month of the season. “Right now, they’re going about their business and having fun.”
Santana hasn’t been having much fun this season, slumping through most of it and the majority of Friday night.
He was 0-for-3 when he came to the plate with one out and the hard-throwing Benoit on the mound, few in the park expecting much from the struggling cleanup hitter.
But after working himself into a favorable hitter’s count (3-1), Santana finally found some relief, belting a grooved fastball well into the seats in right field for his first big league grand slam.
“I am very excited,” said Santana, who could remember only one grand slam during his minor league days. “I am very happy my team won on my first grand slam. It’s just something that happened. It’s baseball.”
“That was a great at-bat,” Acta said of Santana’s trip. “He put himself in a position to get a pitch that he could drive, and that’s what he did. It was nice to see for him.”
In the majority of their wins, the Indians have grabbed early leads with their pitching staff taking over from there.
This time around Cleveland had to come back after some early scuffles from starting pitcher Jeanmar Gomez and a dominant effort from Tigers starter Max Scherzer left them in a 3-0 hole through 5 1/2 innings.
Gomez bent, allowing three runs on 10 hits over 5 2/3 innings, but he didn’t break, which loomed large at the end of the night.
“He fought his way through it and kept us in the game,” Acta said of Gomez, who allowed two of his runs in the opening inning on a home run from Miguel Cabrera. “The way Scherzer was throwing the ball, you didn’t want to be trailing by too many runs.”
Cleveland entered the night with the highest-scoring offense in the American League but looked as though it had finally met its match in Scherzer, who shut out the Indians on just two hits over the first five innings, while striking out six.
The Indians finally broke free from Scherzer’s hold in the sixth on a two-out, two-run single from Shelley Duncan, who replaced designated hitter Travis Hafner (right ankle inflammation) for the second straight night.
Detroit built its lead back to three-runs in the top of the seventh off reliever Chad Durbin, but Cleveland returned fire in the bottom of the inning.
Matt LaPorta hit a solo homer to left off Scherzer before Grady Sizemore drew a two-out walk and rode home on another long ball — a two-run shot from Asdrubal Cabrera — that tied the game at five.
The Indians had a chance to break the tie in the eighth, but LaPorta struck out to end the inning with two on base before Cleveland went to work on Benoit in the ninth.
Jack Hannahan started the inning off with a single, then advanced to third on a base hit from Sizemore. The Tigers intentionally walked Asdrubal Cabrera to load the bases for Shin-Soo Choo.
Choo struck out to give the Tigers a chance at an inning-ending double play, but Santana spoiled the opportunity with gusto.
Indians relievers Vinnie Pestano and closer Chris Perez kept the game tied by retiring all six batters they faced in the eighth and ninth innings, setting the stage for Santana’s unlikely heroics.
“That’s baseball,” Perez said. “That’s fun. Give our hitters credit. They came back. That’s another sign of a good team.”
And another surprising development in an already shocking beginning for the Indians in 2011.
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or firstname.lastname@example.org.