CLEVELAND -- Picture the Indians as a boxer, knees wobbling, cut above the eyes, looking for the ropes. Right now, this Cleveland club is trying to avoid the knockout.
On Wednesday night, the Tribe exchanged a series of blows with the Tigers, but could not finish them off in a 6-5 loss in 14 innings at Progressive Field. In what has been billed as the most important series of the summer, Cleveland has fallen short and now sits one game away from a discouraging sweep of this four-game series with Detroit.
The Tribe rolled out highly touted pitching prospect Danny Salazar, took a lead in the seventh on Nick Swisher's RBI double and battled back after Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera took the air out of the stadium with a towering go-ahead home run in the eighth inning. The bullpen kept Cleveland close with a string of zeros, but finally buckled as the marathon dragged deep into the night.
"They all hurt," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "But when you go this far, you go that deep into a game, use up your bullpen, it's a little more fresh five minutes after the game. But, they all hurt."
The Tigers -- winners of 11 straight -- now lead the Tribe by six games in the American League Central, and improved to 12-3 against the Indians this season.
The game's decisive turn came in the 14th inning, when reliever Bryan Shaw took the hill for his third inning of work. The right-hander surrendered a leadoff double to Austin Jackson, issued a one-out walk to Hernan Perez and left Marc Rzepczynski to face slugger Prince Fielder. Detroit's first baseman then sliced a pitch to the wall in left-center field for a double, pushing the Indians behind, 6-4.
"My job is to come in there and get Prince out," Rzepczynski said. "He knew a slider was coming and I left it up. He did his job."
Michael Bourn delivered a run-scoring double with two outs in the 14th inning, but that is where Cleveland's comeback bid ended.
Over the past three nights, the Indians have absorbed a series of blows.
Alex Avila hit a decisive three-run home run off Indians closer Chris Perez in the ninth inning on Monday. One day later, Indians rotation leader Justin Masterson coughed up five runs -- three on a homer from Don Kelly -- in a game-changing fifth inning. On Wednesday, it was Cabrera's turn to drop Cleveland to its knees with a go-ahead two-run home run off Salazar in the eighth.
The blast spoiled another impressive showing from Salazar.
Salazar was initially announced as a spot starter for Wednesday's game, but that changed drastically on Tuesday, when the Indians (62-52) lost starter Corey Kluber to a right middle finger injury for at least four-to-six weeks. While Kluber is sidelined, Salazar will be given a chance to fill the vacancy within the starting staff.
If his outing against the Tigers (67-45) is any indication, Salazar could be up to the challenge.
"Besides a couple mistakes, I thought he was tremendous," Francona said. "He had poise, competitiveness. I wish I could sit here on a win, but it doesn't change the fact of how he pitched or how we feel about him. That was pretty awesome."
Over 7 2/3 innings, Salazar piled up 10 strikeouts and issued only one walk, firing plenty of pitches that lit up the stadium's radar gun. Combined with his Major League debut on July 11, Salazar has joined Herb Score as the only starters in Indians history to begin a Major League career with at least seven strikeouts in each of their first two appearances. Score accomplished the feat in 1955.
Salazar's 10 strikeouts were the most for an Indians rookie since Kaz Tadano posted the same total against the Reds on July 2, 2004. The 17 combined strikeouts for Salazar mark the most by a Tribe rookie in his first two career starts since Luis Tiant also piled up 17 in 1964.
"I went out there and I gave my 100 percent," Salazar said. "Every inning, every pitch, I did. And I feel great."
The Indians produced two runs against Tigers right-hander Doug Fister in his six innings, which included a solo home run from Yan Gomes and an RBI double from Swisher in the third. Swisher came through again in the seventh, using another double to drive in Mike Aviles, giving Cleveland a short-lived 3-2 lead.
Salazar limited the damage early on, keeping Detroit to two runs via an RBI single from Jose Iglesias in the second and a solo homer from Jackson in the sixth inning. Following Jackson's blast to the Home Run Porch in left field, Salazar settled back in, blowing a 100-mph fastball by the bat of Cabrera for a strikeout within the pitcher's inning-ending push.
Cabrera took note for his next at-bat.
"I don't want to face him the fourth time," Cabrera said. "He [struck] me out the first three times. I was saying to myself, 'It's time to bring in the bullpen.' And when they decided to leave him in there, I say, 'Let's grind out this at-bat, try to make something happen.'"
In the eighth inning, Salazar's first pitch to Cabrera was a 96 mph fastball and, this time, Cabrera did not miss.
The American League's reigning Triple Crown winner and Most Valuable Player sent the ill-fated offering deep to center field, where it disappeared into the seats for a two-run home run. Given the pitcher's performance to that point, Francona trusted Salazar in that situation.
"He was throwing about as well as you could," Francona said. "That would've been his last hitter, but to that point I would've had a hard time justifying having him not pitch. That's how good I thought he was."
The home crowd offered warm cheers for Salazar as he headed off the field and the pitcher's teammates went to work on taking him off the hook. Cleveland did just that in the bottom of the eighth, when Michael Brantley doubled and later scored on a groundout from Gomes.
For a moment, Cleveland was back on its feet.
Fielder finished the club off.