DETROIT -- The Indians were hoping to make a statement this weekend. It came in the second inning on Saturday night, when a dirt-stained, helmet-less Jason Kipnis got up from the ground, shifted to one knee and screamed at the moon.
Kipnis had narrowly beat a relay throw to home after sprinting around the bags from first base, sliding head-first and slapping the plate with his left hand. It was part of an early outburst against Tigers ace Justin Verlander, who looked quite human against Cleveland, which survived some late drama to pull off a 7-6 victory at Comerica Park.
"That was huge," Indians first baseman Nick Swisher said of Kipnis' play. "Any time you have a hustle play like that, it definitely fires you up, gets that blood boiling."
The win marked the 11th in the past 13 games for the Indians, who sit one game behind American League Central-leading Detroit. Ubaldo Jimenez -- looking more and more like the pitcher Cleveland wanted when it pulled the trigger on the 2011 trade with Colorado -- boasts three victories within this stretch after his taming of the Tigers.
The Indians (19-15) jumped on Verlander early when the hard-throwing right-hander struggled to command his fastball, scoring three runs in the first two innings and driving his pitch count up to force him out of the contest by the fifth. Facing one of the best pitchers in the game, Cleveland wanted to make things as difficult for him as possible.
"He's so good. He's so strong. He's so durable," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "He has a lot of weapons. But, to our credit, we made him work for everything. Sometimes the best way to beat a guy like Verlander is to get him out before the seventh or eighth."
Michael Bourn led the first inning off with a single and later crossed the plate on a double to right field from Swisher. Verlander loaded the bases with one out and then issued a free pass to veteran Jason Giambi to force home another run. It was the third time in Verlander's career that he issues a bases-loaded walk.
In fact, Verlander's outing was only the third of his storied career that included at least five walks in five or fewer innings. The 2011 AL Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner allowed four runs (three earned) on six hits, ending with seven strikeouts, five walks and 110 pitches. Not since 2010 had Verlander logged as many pitches without pitching into the sixth.
"They're just professional hitters," Verlander said. "It's like anybody. You make your pitches and most of the time you get guys out. But when you get professional hitters like that, you've got to make your pitches. Otherwise, they're not going to give in and make an easy out for you. They're going to battle you."
Jimenez (3-2) improved to 3-0 with a 1.45 ERA in his last three turns for the Tribe after holding the Tigers (20-14) to one run -- courtesy of a third-inning solo home run from Jhonny Peralta -- over six frames. The Cleveland right-hander finished with eight strikeouts (matching a season high) and issued just one walk in his 93-pitch effort.
Jimenez has won three starts in a row for the first time since July 9-19, 2011, when he was still with the Rockies.
"I've been able to go out there for the last three or four games and compete," Jimenez said, "and give the team a chance to be close on the scoreboard. I think it's all about my mechanics. The last three games I've been able to repeat my mechanics on every pitch."
Francona was tempted to send Jimenez back out for the seventh inning, but the pitcher admitted that he was fatiguing on this cold night in the Motor City.
With Jimenez out of the game, the Tigers made their push.
In the seventh inning, Indians left-hander Nick Hagadone loaded the bases, creating a tough situation for right-hander Cody Allen to inherit. Allen allowed a sacrifice fly to pinch-hitter Brayan Pena, a two-run triple to Omar Infante and a run-scoring groundout to Austin Jackson, cutting Cleveland's lead to 6-5. The Indians tacked on an important insurance run in the eighth.
"We needed every one of them," Francona said.
With one out in the ninth inning, and Indians closer Chris Perez on the mound, Swisher misplayed a routine catch on a would-be groundout off the bat of Pena, allowing the catcher to reach safely.
Infante followed with a base hit to left field, putting Detroit in good position to rally. Jackson then drilled a pitch from Perez up the middle, where Kipnis ranged to his right, said a prayer and stabbed at the ball with his glove. He came up with it, and made a flip to shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera at second base for a critical force out.
"That was awesome," Perez said. "That saved me."
"I wasn't even sure what I was going to do when I got to it -- if I got to it," Kipnis said. "It was one of those ones where you don't really think about it."
Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter delivered an RBI single off Perez, but that was where the comeback ended.
For the Tribe, Mark Reynolds contributed an RBI single in the fifth inning and Mike Aviles chipped in a pinch-hit RBI single in the seventh, but Kipnis' mad dash around the bases was the offensive highlight.
With one out in the second, Kipnis singled to right field off Verlander, bringing Cabrera to the plate. The shortstop capitalized by yanking a pitch down the right-field line for a double, sending Kipnis bursting out of the starting blocks. Tribe third-base coach Brad Mills waved Kipnis home the whole way and the second baseman never slowed.
Hunter relayed the ball to Infante, who fired it to catcher Alex Avila. The catcher made a swipe attempt, but Kipnis was already there, his helmet flying away as he slid in safely. The second baseman jumped up, pumped his fist, showing Detroit that Cleveland plans on putting up a fight this year.
"He's such a scrappy player, man," Swisher said. "He's one of those dirtball guys. After every game it seems like he has some sort of stain on his uniform."