CLEVELAND -- From the second batter of the contest, Tigers ace Justin Verlander knew the Indians' game plan.
Frankly, he didn't care.
As long as he hits his spots, he said, the opposition's method of attack is essentially inconsequential. But on Thursday he wasn't hitting his spots when he needed to. And in a nightmarish seventh inning, everything unraveled.
Cleveland erased a two-run deficit with back-to-back home runs, then tacked on another pair of runs in the frame to top Detroit, 5-3, and take the rubber match of the series between the American League Central foes.
"It was a battle for me all night," said Verlander, who fell to 6-10 with a 5.83 ERA in 17 career outings at Progressive Field. "I didn't really feel great. I never really got in a groove and got comfortable out there, but I was able to battle and keep those guys off the board for the most part until that inning."
That inning is one Verlander hopes to forget. It didn't take long for the floodgates to open.
The Indians sat on first-pitch fastballs from the 29-year-old right-hander all night. Shin-Soo Choo greeted him with a double off the center-field wall on the first offering of the evening. In the seventh, catcher Carlos Santana and designated hitter Travis Hafner each smashed such pitches over the right-field fence. In two pitches, the Tigers' two-run lead vanished.
"They were horrible, horrible pitches," Verlander said. "If I execute my pitch there, I seriously doubt that they do anything with it."
Tribe third baseman Jose Lopez followed with a single, and he scored when Cleveland strung together three more singles with two outs.
By the time it was over, Verlander had surrendered five earned runs in a start for just the second time this season. In his previous three outings, he was 3-0 with a 1.08 ERA, having allowed just 11 hits in 25 innings.
"I'm extremely disappointed in myself in not being able to go out there with a two-run lead in the seventh and shut the door and give us our 'W,' he said. "I'm just more upset with myself than anything."
Verlander didn't mind Cleveland's aggressive approach. He identified it early, when all three batters in the first inning who saw a first-pitch strike put the ball into play.
"They had a good game plan and they stuck with it," manager Jim Leyland said. "You could see, obviously, what the game plan was in the first inning. They never wavered from it. They were still staying with that plan late, and it paid big dividends for them in the seventh."
Between the first and seventh frames, Verlander mowed through Cleveland's lineup, though he said he still didn't feel sharp. He entered the seventh staked to a two-run lead, having yielded just one run on three hits.
It appeared that redemption was at hand for the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player, who took a tough-luck loss in Cleveland on May 24. On that day he limited the Indians to two runs in eight innings and wowed the crowd with 102-mph heaters in his final frame.
On Thursday, those in attendance at Progressive Field were once again awestruck at the late-inning developments. Only this time it was fueled by a surprising comeback, one Hafner said "seemed like it came out of nowhere."
"You've got to give it to the guys," Tribe skipper Manny Acta said. "Being able to come back against a guy like Verlander in the seventh inning was just tremendous."
Austin Jackson paced Detroit with three singles and a walk. He beat out a potential double play in the ninth inning to keep the Tigers alive, but Tribe closer Chris Perez struck out Quintin Berry with two on to erase the threat.
Verlander is a firm believer that he can dictate the outcome of a game if he has top-notch command. He said that a 26-minute rain delay at the start of the contest shortened his pregame bullpen session but had no effect on his performance. Neither did the Indians' blueprint, he added. It was all a matter of his inability to wield pinpoint control when it mattered most.
"Horrible execution of pitches. I didn't hit my spots at all," he said. "Obviously, [the team] was extremely aggressive to the fastball all night, but it doesn't really matter if I hit my spots. I just wasn't able to that last inning."