Justin Masterson (2-3) and the Cleveland Indians' stellar bullpen displayed the blueprint for season-long contention in the AL Central as Masterson went seven strong innings in the 2-1 win, and Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez slammed the door, as the tribe beat the Detroit Tigers and Justin Verlander (5-2) thursday afternoon at Progressive Field.
The win capped off a three-game sweep of the defending AL Central champion Tigers.
Masterson (7 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 5 BB, 4 K) bested Verlander (8 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 7 SO, 1 BB, 1 HR) and gave way to Pestano, who worked a perfect eighth, and Perez, who slammed the door in the ninth, allowed one hit and struck out one, earning his 16th save in his last 16 save chances.
Quality starting and relief pitching, and timely defense were the key elements in the formula for success for the Indians throughout the entire series.
In pitting the two teams head-to-head in starting and relief pitching, and defense over the series and so far in the season, we can see why these could be areas that could favor the Indians over the long haul, hopefully enabling them to contend in, and possibly win the AL Central.
Indians Starters: 3.84 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, .257 BAA, 269 IP, 18 W
Tigers Starters: 3.79 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, .253 BAA, 259 IP, 12 W
The Tigers have the edge in ERA, WHIP and BAA, but the Indians' starters have more innings pitched and more wins. Take away Verlander's five wins and the rest of the starters have only seven wins. There seems to be more depth in Cleveland's staff over the top-heavy Tiger staff.
Indians Relievers: 4.12 ERA, 18 Saves, 1.21 WHIP, .217 BAA
Tigers Relievers: 4.71 ERA, 9 Saves, 1.49 WHIP, .267 BAA
The Indians have clearly been better here as the four major categories show. Indians closer Chris Perez (16 SV, 2.79 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, .189 BAA) has been much better than Tigers closer Jose Valverde (7 SV, 5.51 ERA, 1.78 WHIP, .270 BAA) so far this season.
Perez has saved 16 games in 17 chances and Valverde has already blown two saves in nine chances, after a perfect 2011 where he converted all 49 save opportunities.
The Indians' setup men, Vinnie Pestano (19.2 IP, 2.29 ERA, .097 WHIP, .186 BAA) and Joe Smith (19.0 IP, 2.84 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, .203 BAA) match up well with the Tigers' setup men, Duane Below (20.2 IP, 2.61 ERA, .087 WHIP, .205 BAA) and Phil Coke (19 IP, 4.26 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, .290 BAA).
Series Pitching Analysis
The story of the series was the shutdown bullpen of the Indians. The "Bullpen Mafia" completely stifled the Tigers, allowing zero runs in seven innings pitched. The starters for both teams had very similar performances in all three games.
The Indians rank tied for fifth in fielding percentage (.987) in the majors and have committed the fifth fewest errors (22) in MLB. The Tigers rank 21st in fielding percentage (.981) and have made the 11th most errors (30) in the majors.
This defensive edge the Indians have over the Tigers came into play at a couple of key points in the series.
On Wednesday, Michael Brantley turned a fly ball by Prince Fielder into a double play by gunning down Miguel Cabrera at third after Cabrera opened up the frame with a double, thereby thwarting a possible rally and keeping the game scoreless.
In the top of the eighth, with the score tied at two, The Tigers had the bases loaded with one out. Ramon Santiago bounced one to Tribe first baseman Casey Kotchman, who fired to Carlos Santana forcing out Prince Fielder. The play was huge as Pestano fanned the next batter Alex Avila keeping the score 2-2.
In the bottom of the frame, Jason Kipnis scored from third as Prince Fielder fired an errant throw to Avila. The run proved to be the game winner. The Indians added an insurance run one batter later on Travis Hafner's sacrifice fly that scored Asdrubal Cabrera from third.
On Thursday, Jose Lopez threw out Brennan Boesch at home in the top of the second, also proving to be a key defensive play, as the margin of victory turned out to be one run.
The Indians made some key defensive plays, and the Tigers failed to execute at key points.
Over the course of the year, the Tribe will have a huge defensive advantage at the corner infield spots with Kotchman at first and Hannahan at third, over the Tigers' third baseman Cabrera and first baseman Fielder.
While it is true Cabrera and Fielder are more potent offensive weapons than what the Indians feature, the field is neutralized with the Tribe's bullpen advantage and overall deeper starting staff.
Yes, Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in baseball, but he only pitches every fifth day. The Indians will have to continue to have solid starting and relief pitching, as well as solid defense in order to contend all year long in the AL Central.