DETROIT — The Indians squandered an opportunity Thursday to issue an early season statement to the kings of the Central Division.
Cleveland, which was dominated by the Detroit Tigers last year, appeared on track to completing a two-game sweep of the three-time defending division champs. Instead, it dropped a deflating 7-5 decision at Comerica Park.
Right-hander Danny Salazar and the Indians led former Cy Young award winner and MVP Justin Verlander and the Tigers 3-1 before a fateful fifth inning turned the tables in Detroit’s favor for good.
The Tigers scored four times off Salazar in the fifth, with Ian Kinsler landing the big blow on a three-run home run.
“It was a big shutdown inning for us,” manager Terry Francona said. “We get on the board, take the lead and they got the bottom of the lineup, and two walks to start the inning. It’s not necessarily bad walking some of their hitters. You just gotta walk the right ones and not turn the lineup over and get to the big boys. That really hurt us.”
Up to that point, Salazar had outpitched Verlander, who allowed three unearned runs on six hits over five innings. Salazar retired nine of the first 10 batters, allowing his first run on a sacrifice fly from Austin Jackson in the fourth. Then he walked the first two hitters in the fifth — Alex Avila and Alex Gonzalez — and imploded from there.
“I don’t know (what happened),” said Salazar, who allowed five runs on six hits and three walks over 4⅔ innings. “I started good in the game. I think in the fifth inning I totally lost control of my pitches.
“The first couple innings, I was throwing the ball down in the zone. I wasn’t trying to overthrow any pitches like my fastball. I was throwing hard and soft. In that fifth inning, I think I tried to get more aggressive and too perfect there, and I just lost control.”
Salazar offered up a breakout performance at the end of last season, but he’s started slowly this year. In his first three starts, Salazar is 0-2, allowing 12 runs on 19 hits (four homers) over 12 innings.
“I think I need to start watching videos of last year and this year to see what I am doing different,” Salazar said.
The Indians were banking on a better effort out of the gate from their 24-year-old phenom.
“I don’t know if discouraging is the right word,” Francona said. “I think we all see what Danny can do and we believe that he will do it. I think with youth sometimes it doesn’t happen as fast. You want it to happen right now. He’ll be all right.”
Cleveland had an effective approach against Verlander, who entered 1-1 with a 2.57 ERA over three starts, and was 3-1 with a 3.38 ERA in five starts against the Indians in 2013.
A two-out single from David Murphy scored the first run of the game in the fourth, then the Indians got a key hit from Michael Brantley — a two-out, two-run single — that gave them a 3-1 advantage in the fifth.
A high pitch count for Verlander led to his early departure.
“I thought we did a great job. We made him work from the first hitter of the game,” Francona said. “If you can get him out after five, you feel like you have a pretty good chance to win, and we did. We just couldn’t stop them.”
Kinsler drove in his fourth run of the game with a two-out single in the sixth off C.C. Lee that put the Tigers up 6-3, but Brantley delivered again, clouting a two-run homer to right off Ian Krol that brought the Indians back in the seventh.
It was the second homer of the season for Brantley, who leads Cleveland with 14 RBIs.
Lonnie Chisenhall continued his hot streak at the plate, producing a career-high four hits — all singles — to raise his batting average to .522 (12-for-23). He is without an RBI over seven games.