By TOM WITHERS/AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) – Alex Avila’s three-run homer in the ninth inning off closer Chris Perez rallied the Detroit Tigers to their ninth straight win, 4-2 on Monday night over the Cleveland Indians.
The Tigers were three outs away from having their lead in the AL Central cut to two games before their comeback against Perez (4-2), who had converted 11 consecutive save opportunities.
After Victor Martinez’s RBI single made it 2-1, Perez walked Andy Dirks before Avila drove a 1-0 pitch over the wall in left-center for his ninth homer, stunning a Cleveland crowd ready to celebrate the team’s biggest win this season.
Manager Terry Francona had no choice but to relieve the controversial Perez, who sullenly walked to the dugout after not retiring a batter and heard only boos from Indians fans.
Al Alburquerque (2-2) got one in the eighth and Joaquin Benoit worked the ninth for his 13th save.
Detroit starter Anibal Sanchez struck out 11 in 7 2-3 innings, and was in line to take a tough loss before the Tigers stormed back for their 13th win in 14 games.
It was a demoralizing setback for the Indians, who fell to 3-10 against the Tigers this season and had their home winning streak stopped at 11.
The win ended a challenging day for the defending AL champion Tigers, who will be without All-Star shortstop Jhonny Peralta for 50 games. He was suspended by Major League Baseball for his association with Biogenesis of America, a Florida anti-aging clinic accused of distributing banned performance-enhancing drugs.
Cleveland’s Corey Kluber had blanked Detroit’s big bats for 7 1-3 innings and set the tone in a crucial four-game series before the Indians’ problematic bullpen blew it.
The Tigers’ rally started innocently enough with Price Fielder blooping a double into the left-field corner that Martinez followed with a single, cutting Cleveland’s lead to 2-1. Pinch runner Hernan Perez came in for Martinez and Perez walked Dirks, setting the stage for Avila’s big swing.
When Avila reached Detroit’s dugout, as he was swarmed over by his teammates as the Tigers won for the ninth time in 10 games against their division rival.
Kluber limited the Tigers to six singles and got some excellent defense, but the Indians couldn’t close out a game that was within their grasp. The right-hander settled in after a somewhat shaky start and held the AL’s top hitting team in check.
Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, back in the lineup after missing a few games with hip and abdominal problems, went 1 for 4 – he was walked intentionally in the ninth – and labored noticeably any time he tried to run.
While Peralta’s teammates were willing to address his suspension, manager Jim Leyland wanted to talk only about baseball before the game.
As he brewed a fresh cup of coffee in his office, Leyland answered a few questions, ending each response with “next question” before he abruptly ended the session when a reporter asked if he had any comment about Peralta.
“See you guys, see ya later,” Leyland said, gesturing toward the door. “You were told I wasn’t going to comment on that. See ya.”
The mood was slightly different on Cleveland’s side of Progressive Field as Francona reported that he had spoken by phone to Commissioner Bud Selig to offer his support on the Biogenesis scandal that rocked the majors.
“I was watching his statement being read and I felt for him,” Francona said. “I picked up the phone, called him and left a message. Ten minutes later he called me back and said, `This doesn’t need to be a dark day in baseball. It needs to be the beginning of the good stuff.’ He said it a lot better than I articulated it, but I agree with him.”
The Indians took a 2-0 lead in the fourth on Carlos Santana’s RBI double, a shot off the right-field wall that just missed being a two-run homer.
Jason Giambi’s RBI single gave the Indians a 1-0 lead in the second, when Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson robbed Lonnie Chisenhall of a possible homer.
Brantley singled with one out and stole second. With two down, Giambi, closing in on 2,000 career hits, delivered his run-scoring single to center. Chisenhall followed with a drive to center that Jackson snared with a leaping grab at the wall in front of the Indians’ bullpen.
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