CLEVELAND -- If we're being entirely realistic, the American League Central race shouldn't be a race at all.
The Tigers, realistically, should comfortably claim this thing. The Tigers, realistically, could comfortably claim this thing. And after this four-game wraparound series between the Tigers and Indians at Progressive Field, there is more reason than ever to believe that the Tigers, eventually, will comfortably claim this thing.
"This is just beginning," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said after Detroit's 4-2, 10-inning triumph in the rain-soaked series finale on Monday night. "Trust me when I tell you [the Indians] are not going away."
Leyland is likely right. The Indians, after all, are a fundamentally different ballclub than the ones that fell apart so swiftly and so thoroughly in the second halves of the 2011 and '12 seasons, and if they can merely hang around in the above-.500 realm entering August, they'll definitely have a pulse in the expanded postseason pursuit. They have earned reams of respect here in the first year of the Terry Francona era.
That said, there is undeniably a chasm in clout between what the Indians trot out in the middle of their order and what the Tigers offer. There is inarguably a disparity in depth, both in terms of the assemblage of arms in the rotation and the number of quality innings they can be counted on to provide. And there is certainly a sense that the Tigers' needs will be much easier to satisfy at the non-waiver Trade Deadline than those of the Tribe.
All of this was suspected a week ago, even as the Indians held the slightest of mathematical edges in the standings. And all of this was supposed four days ago, when fans packed Progressive Field for dollar hot dogs and holiday fireworks and the palpable pull of a budding rivalry.
But now that the Tigers have taken three of four and nine of 12 in the season series, the realities of run differential (the Tigers are at plus-92, the Indians at plus-14) and the substance of star power have the standings looking, well, more realistic.
The Tigers have a 3 1/2-game edge. Sure, they might cough it up and grab it back and cough it up again in the coming weeks, but even with the issues in the back end of their bullpen, it's difficult to see them going on the sort of sustained rut required to truly trail the Tribe both in math and in mind-set.
Before Monday night, the one area in which the Indians had a clear and present edge on the Tigers was in extras, where they were a perfect 5-0 to the Tigers' 2-9.
Those records need updating.
At some point a 3-4-5 combo of Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez becomes a burden for the opposing team, and that point was palpable even with two outs and nobody on in the 10th.
Up came Cabrera, and Tribe reliever Matt Albers was understandably sheepish in his approach to the Best Hitter on the Planet, who walked on five pitches. Then came Fielder, and Albers was equally unaggressive -- regrettably so. Another five-pitch walk. And with Martinez showing serious signs of life of late after a slow start in his 2013 return from last season's knee woes, what came next was as ugly (for the Indians) as it was inevitable. Martinez ripped a double off the center-field wall to send the go-ahead runs home and provide vast improvement to the Tigers' unsightly .202/.269/.255 extra-innings line this season.
"You're facing very dangerous hitters," Tribe manager Terry Francona said. "He ends up walking them. It's difficult. You're in a difficult position. Guys that swing the bat like that, you don't want to make a mistake, but if you walk them, then a hit beats you."
The Indians were beaten soundly in this series. Even Sunday's 9-6 victory required the Jaws of Life, as Michael Brantley's late homer bailed out Vinnie Pestano, who blew a three-run lead in a performance that cost him his setup job.
Pestano's struggles this season, both in health and effectiveness, have fundamentally altered the outlook for the once-stout Tribe 'pen -- an area where the Indians could, back in Spring Training, reasonably be counted on to be better than the Tigers this year. Turns out, both bullpens have struggled and had to reinvent their roles, with Joaquin Benoit seizing the Detroit ninth to create a mix-and-match eighth and Joe Smith and rookie Cody Allen now replacing Pestano in the Indians' eighth. On this night, Allen and Smith and the Tigers' Drew Smyly all turned in terrific, tie-preserving work that helped pave the way to extras, but both clubs are clearly aiming at a moving target.
The pressing problem for the Indians is that the moving target extends to the starting situation, which is also unsettled. They know they need a top-end arm to help take the pressure off the beleaguered bullpen (the Indians rank 12th in the 15-team AL in starters' innings), but what's less certain is whether a reasonable fix -- at a responsible price -- will be available.
With such major trade implications hanging in the balance, the results always seem to mean a little more this time of year, and this series resulted in plenty of tell-tale moments that help dictate the long story that is a 162-game season. Starter Max Scherzer called Monday's result "the best win" of 2013 thus far for the Tigers, and that's saying something coming from a guy who entered 13-0 and took a no-decision.
It was a satisfying win for the Tigers not just because it was hard-earned in the rain and finally got them off the extra-innings schneid.
Satisfaction was also gleaned from the fact that this result brought the standings to a state more closely resembling the reality of the AL Central situation.