CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 24: Shin-Soo Choo #17 of the Cleveland Indians receives congratulations after connecting for a lead off homer run during the game against the Detroit Tigers at Progressive Field on May 24, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
Concede nothing. That was the message delivered emphatically by Shin Soo Choo on the third pitch of Justin Verlander's afternoon. On what might have been the worst pitch ever thrown by a reigning Cy Young winner, Choo deposited the 84-mph changeup into the second deck in right field. The 454-foot shot was the longest home run ever surrendered by Verlander, and it offered an instant jolt to fans who kept declaring that a win against Verlander would be "a bonus" because the team was "playing with house money" after taking the first two games of the series.
Verlander offered very few openings in what became a complete-game effort, but that home run from Choo came to represent this remarkable three-game sweep: Winning teams take advantage of small openings. Under-achieving teams flail like a fat shortstop, unaware that the book is slider down-and-away, and the book has always been slider down-and-away. The Tribe passed each small-yet-significant test this series while the Tigers politely declined a pile of opportunities. You can only complain so much about strike zones and non-balks and Jacobs Field guest buffets when you simply can't hit.
The seventh inning would prove decisive. Justin Masterson had put together a performance not all that different from the job turned in on Tuesday by Ubaldo Jimenenz. Masterson's fifth walk of the game inexplicably came to the inning's leadoff hitter, someone called Danny Worth. The fill-in second sacker came in with no extra base hits on the season and a grand total of three singles in 19 at bats. Masterson was never really close to the plate against him. Then, a strange borderline play presented the Tigers the chance they needed to salvage the game and turn the tenor of the series into something entirely different. On a sacrifice bunt, Masterson flipped the ball into the jersey of Quintin Berry. The runner could have been called out, with Berry very close to being in the field of play, but the umpire made no motion.
However, this is 2012, and in 2012, the Tigers look like a fundamentally corrupt, foot-shooting squad. Andy Dirks failed badly to get a bunt down, then was frozen by a beautiful slider for strike three. With Manny Acta on the way to the mound, Joe Smith headed out onto the field; after all, when the manager emerges, it's a pitching change, right? But Smith had to turn around and jog back to the pen after the coterie on the mound agreed to stick with the Indians' ace. Masterson rewarded that decision by coaxing a lazy flyball from Miguel Cabrera, then making a stab of Prince Fielder's groundball after Fielder salivated over a Masterson meatball.
And how about the pen? Pestano and Perez pitched in all three games in this series. They combined to provide six innings, yielding four hits, one walk, and striking out seven. Each threw 67% strikes over the sweep. Pestano's club record streak of consecutive outings with a strikeout ended this afternoon, but you don't really care about that, do you? In the end, that's just window dressing on what might be a championship clubhouse. Perez, meanwhile, is leading with 94-mph black-painting stuff, and his mechanical issues that occasionally saw his shoulder fly open seem to have quieted.
Masterson and Jimenez, meanwhile, put together 13 innings and walked 11. They each picked up victories, but they will need to make much more progress if this team wants to even entertain playoff fantasies. The leadoff slot is wonderfully stable, but the middle of the order continues to struggle. A catatonic week has dragged Carlos Santana's slugging percentage below .400.
This was a finale that had a variety of strangeness on the way to victory: Rick Manning making an Amber Alert joke; a first base coach getting tossed over a balk that wasn't called; a reliever running out of the bullpen, then back into it; and Katie Witham astutely predicting during the first inning that Verlander would be much more difficult to handle late in the game than the beginning.
Concede nothing, Tribe fans. Yours is a first-place club. A long and fascinating summer beckons.