CLEVELAND — Give the Indians an “A” for resiliency Sunday, but give the bullpen an “F” for forcing them to display the characteristic.
The Indians overcame another implosion from their relief corps to earn a long-awaited win over first-place Detroit, outlasting the Tigers 9-6 at Progressive Field.
A victory over the Tigers — Cleveland’s first in the last eight meetings with the Central Division leaders — was something to celebrate for certain. But thanks to another shoddy effort from the pen, it was more difficult than it should have been.
The Indians led 6-1 through six innings, but the Tigers tied the game on Torii Hunter’s three-run home run off Vinnie Pestano in the eighth inning. It was a deflating blow, but Michael Brantley had the cure in the bottom of the inning, clouting his second homer of the game to put the Indians back on top for good.
“We’ve got that never-say-die attitude and today was a great example of that,” said first baseman Nick Swisher, whose team snapped a four-game skid, beating the Tigers for just the third time in 11 games this season. “The good teams pick each other up. The bad teams pick each other apart.”
“Fortunately, we kept playing,” said manager Terry Francona, whose club trails Detroit by 2½ games. “That one would have been a tough one to walk away with a loss.”
The Indians broke out of their offensive funk from the first two games of the series to score four times in the first off Doug Fister. With starter Corey Kluber working a gem, Cleveland appeared to be on its way to a rout.
Enter the maligned bullpen — a strength of the team the past two years, but an area of weakness this season.
Right-hander Joe Smith allowed two runs in the seventh inning on four consecutive hits before turning it over to a scuffling Pestano.
Despite allowing the first two batters to reach, Pestano (4.71 ERA) struck out Austin Jackson for the second out of the inning before Hunter sent a hanging slider over the wall in left field.
The win was of little solace to Pestano, who felt as though he let down his teammates.
“Obviously, it was great to see them do that,” Pestano said of the rally from his offense. “I just wish I wouldn’t have put us in that situation.
“I’ve got to just get back to attacking guys and trying to miss bats, quit pitching scared. It seems like I’m going out there and trying to make outs happen, instead of just pounding the zone. Hopefully this is the last wakeup call I need to turn my season around.”
Pestano, who was credited with a blown save, is far from the only member of the bullpen to fail. The Indians have allowed 131 runs from the seventh to ninth innings, with only last-place Houston allowing more in the American League. Cleveland, which owns a 5.59 relief ERA over the last nine games, is tied with Baltimore for the league lead in blown saves.
“A lot of it comes from not throwing strikes,” Pestano said. “That’s where we’ve failed.”
The rough relief effort ruined a brilliant outing from Kluber, who maneuvered around one of the most potent lineups in baseball to allow just a run on five hits over 6⅓ innings.
Kluber allowed a solo shot to Miguel Cabrera three batters into the game, but shut down the Tigers after that.
“When you start throwing in with your best velocity, that’s very impressive,” Francona said. “He threw an inside fastball to Cabrera that was probably off the plate and he hit it out. To his credit, he didn’t vary that approach after that.”
Even with a pitiful pen and a host of injuries to position players and pitchers, the Indians have stayed close to the Tigers in the division race — with the second half left to play.
“Through all the ups and downs, and there’s been a lot of them, we’re still 2½ games out,” Francona said.
“We’ve got a long way to go. We’re not even at the All-Star break yet,” Brantley said. “It’s going to be fun. There’s a lot of baseball to play.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at (440) 329-7136 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter at @CAwesomeheimer.