Originally posted on Fox Sports Ohio  |  Last updated 5/24/12
CLEVELAND -- Baseball statements are not made in May, so the Cleveland Indians three-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers counts for no more than three wins. But it's safe to say that the Indians gave the Tigers -- and everyone who conceded Detroit the Al Central title in the offseason -- something to think about. The Indians beat all-world ace Justin Verlander Thursday afternoon to complete a three-up, three-down sweep. Cleveland now is 26-18 and eight games over .500 for the first time since July 7 of last season. And for the third day in a row, closer Chris Perez sprinted in from the bullpen to pitch a scoreless ninth and earn the save, finishing with a strong fist pump as Cleveland moved six games ahead of the Tigers. In an odd way, Perez seems to have ignited interest in this team with his critical words directed at Cleveland fans. More than 20,000 showed up in each game of the Tigers series, and Perez said the crowd for a noon start was the largest he'd seen for a work-week afternoon game. Instead of being divisive, Perez seems to have become unifying. "I think it can be," he said after earning his 16th save in a row. "We're playing with some swagger now. We've got that winning attitude and that's what you need. That's half the battle, believing you can do it." His critical words about fans not showing up oddly led to standing ovations for him every time he left the bullpen. That, plus the fact the Indians were playing the Tigers, led to a charged atmosphere at Progressive Field. The buzz about the team increased, with folks checking and talking about the attendance. "It's still early in the year," Perez said. "But wins are wins." And the wins matter a little more to the team chasing the team that ran away with the division last season. A year ago, the Indians floundered after a great April and good May. This season, they understand what it will take to compete until September, and they understand they are in first place without anyone -- except perhaps Perez -- doing anything special. "We're just kind of chilling here," said Justin Masterson, who gave up just one run despite walking five in the win. "I don't think there's been much of a spike in anything yet." Meaning nobody is playing, as he said, "out of their shoes," but everybody is contributing in their way. Thursday it was Shin-Soo Choo starting with a 450-foot blast to the mezzanine in right to start the game, and backup infielder Jose Lopez throwing out Brandon Boesch at home on a grounder and then singling in the go-ahead run in the fourth. "It's somebody different every night," Perez said. "Because that's what good teams do." The Indians beat Verlander despite the fact he was throwing 100 mph plus in an unbelievable eighth inning. Cleveland got good starting pitching, excellent bullpen work and played sound defense to win three games by two, two and one run. "They're a very good team that's playing very well," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "And we're a very good team that's not playing very well." Perez was quick to point out that the Indians swept Detroit early last season as well, asking "What kind of message did that send?" But Verlander said he turned his velocity up in the eighth to fire up his team -- an interesting tactic for a group that has Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder hitting third and fourth. The Indians have not blinked at the potential the Tigers have amassed. That potential has gone 11-21 after starting 9-3 and has not won consecutive games since April 18. The Indians have scored four more runs than Detroit (190-186), have the best intradivision record of any team in baseball (13-7) and are 10-2 in one-run games, also the best in baseball. "It's just that we don't have the star power," Perez said. As he spoke he sounded like an energized but relieved young man (no pun intended). He knew his words criticizing the fans could have turned many against him if he did not back them up. Three saves in three games against Detroit is pretty solid backup. "Little extra pressure there," he said. Teams have been galvanized by all sorts of strange developments. But if the Indians are brought closer and the interest keeps taking off, it might be the first time a team grew by ripping its fans. At this point the front office might want to consider giving Perez a bonus for generating such a buzz about a team that he simply said was "good." "No," Perez said with smile, "they pay me enough already."
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