CLEVELAND -- There is always a turning point within a baseball game. The Indians have two months to decide whether what took place on Thursday night at Progressive Field was a turning point for their season.
Powered by consecutive home runs from Carlos Santana and Travis Hafner, Cleveland used a four-run push against Tigers ace Justin Verlander in the seventh inning to claim a rousing 5-3 victory. With the win the Tribe took two out of three in this critical series before embarking on a 10-day road trip.
"It was a huge win for us," Hafner said. "[Verlander] was really dominating up to that point. That inning seemed like it kind of came out of nowhere. Everybody contributed. It was huge, and the place was rocking."
The Indians -- set to embark on a nine-game tour through Minnesota, Kansas City and Detroit -- moved to within 3 1/2 games of the first-place White Sox in the American League Central. Chicago was idle, so Detroit dropped out of a first-place tie and into second place with the loss.
Given that the three teams are bunched together at the top of the standings and all are involved in the current Wild Card pile-up, these divisional games have increasing importance as the summer drifts toward autumn.
Under the circumstances, the Tribe understood the potential weight that this particular three-game set carried.
"We were talking about it when Detroit came in," reliever Joe Smith said. "We're confident against the Tigers when they come in. We've played well against the Tigers and, for the past two years, we've played well against the Tigers at our park. We really came together, whatever it was."
Over the last two years, the Indians have gone 10-5 against the rival Tigers at Progressive Field. That record jumps to 18-6 if 2010 is included. This season, Cleveland (50-49) has posted a 7-2 record against Detroit (53-46), and two of those wins have come against Verlander.
The Indians are just the third team in the last three seasons, joining the 2012 Rays and 2010 Mariners, to defeat Verlander twice in the same year. The hard-throwing righty -- the reigning AL Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner -- now has 13 career losses against Cleveland, his most against any opponent.
"You've got to give it to the guys," manager Manny Acta said. "Being able to come back against a guy like Verlander in the seventh inning was just tremendous."
Cleveland's rally actually started in the top of the seventh.
Right-hander Zach McAllister had given the Indians 6 1/3 solid innings, but his pitch count had climbed to 117, and the Tigers had runners on the corners with one out and slugger Miguel Cabrera at the plate. At that crucial juncture, Acta handed the ball to the sidearmer Smith, who induced an inning-ending double-play groundout.
That kept the game close, leaving Detroit with its slim two-run advantage.
"The most important play of the game, defense-wise," Acta said.
After being handled easily by Verlander (11-6) for six innings, Cleveland needed only two pitches to jolt back to life. Santana drilled the first offering he saw from Verlander deep to right-center field for a solo home run that cut Detroit's lead to one run.
One pitch later, Progressive Field exploded in cheers when Hafner followed with a near identical blast. The shots were the eighth and 10th of the year, respectively, for the catcher and designated hitter. It marked the third time this season the team enjoyed a back-to-back outburst.
"They were horrible pitches," said Verlander, who finished with four strikeouts and two walks. "If I execute my pitch there, I seriously doubt that they do anything with it."
Instead that lit the spark for the Indians.
"That was so exciting," Santana said. "I couldn't believe the first two pitches, me and Hafner, we got home runs. I'm so excited with the team's comeback. That feels good."
Jose Lopez singled to right field, and Shin-Soo Choo later delivered a base hit of his own by slicing a pitch from Verlander into left. Asdrubal Cabrera capitalized with a single to right that plated Lopez, giving the Indians a one-run lead. Jason Kipnis -- who contributed with every at-bat, getting two hits, a sac fly and a walk -- then sent a line drive off the glove of a leaping Ramon Santiago at shortstop, leading to an RBI single that gave the Tribe a two-run cushion.
That turnaround allowed the Indians to turn things over to setup man Vinnie Pestano in the eighth inning and All-Star closer Chris Perez in the ninth. The late-inning duo did what they have done for the Tribe all season, locking things down and helping the Indians improve to 42-2 when leading after seven innings.
Perez picked up his 29th save after holding Detroit's lineup in check in the ninth.
Verlander, who was 9-2 with a 2.84 ERA in his previous 13 turns against the Indians, took the loss after surrendering five runs on nine hits over his seven frames. The hard-throwing right-hander also gave up the sacrifice fly to Kipnis in the first inning. It is only the second loss for Verlander in his last nine starts.
"[Verlander] is one of the game's best pitchers," said McAllister, who allowed three runs (two earned) in a no-decision. "To go up against him and a lineup like that was a big challenge for me. I'm definitely excited we came out on top."
And, potentially, found a turning point.
"I don't know. It's not even August yet," Smith said. "But it was a good win."