CLEVELAND -- Manager Manny Acta rarely visits the mound without having already motioned for a new pitcher, so when sinkerballer Justin Masterson saw his skipper emerge from the dugout in the seventh inning on Thursday, he assumed his day was done.
"I was like, 'Oh, no. Please,'" Masterson said. "I didn't see whether he signaled or not."
This time, Acta had not summoned anyone from the bullpen. He just wanted to make sure Masterson had enough left in the tank to finish his part in a tightly contested duel with Tigers ace Justin Verlander.
Masterson stayed on the hill, finished the inning and guided Cleveland to a 2-1 win over rival Detroit.
Whether this will be a statement series when the leaves begin to fall remains to be seen. Right now, Cleveland is content with accepting the three-game set at face value: a sweep of the much-hyped club from the Motor City.
Masterson did what any rotation leader should. He went toe to toe with one of the best pitchers in baseball and put his team on the path to victory.
"He pitched like a front-of-the-rotation guy, what we envisioned out of him," Acta said. "We knew that that had to be the key today, because he was going against Verlander. Again, [Verlander] proved he's the best in the game, but [Masterson] kept them down."
And he helped push the Tigers farther down in the standings.
With the victory, the American League Central-leading Indians (26-18) increased their lead over the third-place Tigers (20-24) to six games. This is where it is fair to remind fans that Cleveland held a six-game lead over Detroit on May 24 last season as well, but when it was all said and done, it was the Tigers who marched onto the October stage with the division crown in hand.
That is why the Indians are hesitant to say this sweep sends any kind of message.
"We did that last year, too," said closer Chris Perez, referring to the Tribe's sweep of the Tigers in their first meeting of 2011. "What kind of message did that send?"
"This is eerily similar to last year, isn't it?" Verlander said.
The difference this seaspn has been that -- unlike in April and early May 2011 -- Cleveland has not seemed to reach its full potential yet. One of the early issues this season has been Masterson, who has battled inconsistency and sits at 2-3 with a 4.62 ERA even after Thursday's performance.
That said, his seven-inning effort against the Tigers shows why the Indians trusted him with the No. 1 spot in the rotation this season. He allowed five hits and issued as many walks but dodged the damage, allowing just one run, surrendered on a Miguel Cabrera groundout in the third inning.
"He was good," catcher Lou Marson said. "That's huge for him, and that's huge for our team. That's a big win for us. We're going to definitely need him to step it up. We all have confidence that he will. He did that today."
The Indians' offense offered just enough in the way of support.
Shin-Soo Choo got things started in the first inning by launching Verlander's third pitch of the game 454 feet into the second deck beyond right field for a home run. In the fourth inning, Michael Brantley singled, stole second and scored on a single by Jose Lopez to put Cleveland up for good, 2-1.
Perez slammed the door for his 16th save of the season and third in as many games.
Verlander (5-2) pitched all eight innings for the Tigers and was hung with a hard-luck loss. In the eighth inning, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player snapped off an array of heaters that registered in triple digits. He struck out three in the inning and was clocked at 102 mph once.
"What was going through my mind?" said Verlander, who struck out seven and walked one in a 117-pitch performance. "I'm going to give it everything I have and try to light a spark."
The crowd let out a few collective gasps during his overpowering display.
"He was throwing harder than any closer in the whole league," Acta said.
That may have been, but the Indians were more concerned with the numbers on the scoreboard than the ones on the radar gun.
"I always get to pitch up against Mr. Verlander," Masterson said. "He's been blessed with such great ability. I'm working with, like, one pitch, and he's got four Hall-of-Fame pitches. He should go out there and do well, as he did. We just did a little bit better."
Much of the credit belongs to Masterson, who was thrilled to have the chance to face Cabrera and slugger Prince Fielder in the seventh inning. With one out and runners on the corners, Acta headed to the mound and asked his sinkerballer if he was up for the challenge.
That was not what Masterson expected to hear.
"I was like, 'Oh!'" Masterson said. "'Yes. I feel great.'"
Masterson then retired Cabrera with a flyout and Fielder on a groundout.
Reliever Joe Smith, who had left the bullpen during Acta's mound visit and begun running to the mound before quickly retreating, was just fine with missing an outing.
"It was a good decision to leave that big boy in," Smith said with a smile.