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DET@BAL: Martinez goes back-to-back in the 9th inning

Any thought that the Indians had begun to close the gap on the Tigers when they finished just a game behind Detroit in the American League Central standings last season has been affronted early in this 2014 season.

The Tigers, despite some notable reconfigurations in their lineup, remain a force, entering Monday with the best record -- not just in the AL Central, but in all of baseball.

They're 6-0 heading into the final stop on their three-city trip. Their 11-game road winning streak is their longest since 1984, the year of their last World Series title. Their seven-game lead in the AL Central is larger than the gap between first and last place in two other divisions.

"We're just going to try to ride that bike 'til the wheels fall off, like I always say," said Torii Hunter.

Carrying that momentum, however, isn't automatic. The Tigers have fallen into early-season trap series in Cleveland the past few years, including three-game sweeps in mid-May in 2012 and the end of April in 2011.

At neither point, however, were they playing this kind of baseball.

"I think experience will tell you momentum's tough to carry over from game to game," said Ian Kinsler. "It's a good feeling, and it's a lot easier to come to the ballpark, a lot easier to prepare yourself for a game, when you're winning. But as far as the game is concerned, it really doesn't care what happened the game before."

That said, Tigers starters have noted that they've tried to carry the momentum of the previous day's pitcher. That task now falls on Drew Smyly, who flew to Cleveland on Sunday afternoon ahead of the team, which had to play Sunday night.

The Indians, on the other hand, have seen their efforts to repeat as postseason entrants betrayed by struggles in the clutch, inconsistency in the rotation and a bewilderingly poor defensive showing. Those issues have snowballed in the Tribe's current four-game losing streak, which left them a full 10 games behind the Tigers -- and last in their division -- after Sunday's loss to the A's.

In other words, it has gotten late early in the 2014 installment of the Tigers-Indians rivalry, which is why the onus is on the Indians to climb back into relevance this week.

"Everybody here is aware of the fact that [the Tigers] are playing well," said Corey Kluber, who will start Monday's series opener at Progressive Field. "But it doesn't do us any good to compare ourselves to them, at this point."

All the Tribe can do is take care of business in-house, and Kluber, who has clearly been their most consistent starter this season, is their best possible option to get this series started off on the right foot.

Kluber (4-3, 3.38 ERA) has succeeded this season largely on the might of one of the best strikeout-to-walk ratios (5.08) in the league. He's struck out 10.1 batters per nine, while walking just two per nine -- and he fanned a career-high 13 batters in his last outing in Chicago.

The Tigers have roughed Kluber up to the tune of 23 earned runs in 37 2/3 innings in seven previous meetings, and, in the wake of the Prince Fielder trade, they present a different dynamic this season compared to last. They are much more oriented toward an aggressive mindset on the basepaths. In fact, they've already surpassed last season's stolen-base total.

"They're playing more small ball than in years past," Kluber said. "So in that sense, it is different. But, at the same time, they've got those guys in the middle of the lineup that are dangerous. So it's not an easier lineup to face, by any means."

Tigers: Martinez mashing in May
The Indians are obviously quite familiar with what a locked-in Victor Martinez can do to a lineup, and he is as locked in now as he's ever been.

After hitting a two-run homer in Detroit's 6-2 win over the Red Sox on Sunday, Martinez has a .375/.429/.750 slash line, six doubles, six homers and 12 RBIs in 16 games in May.

But the real testament to Martinez's strong start this season is that he has hit a home run more times (10) than he has struck out (nine).

Only 25 times has a player with at least 30 home runs struck out fewer times than he went deep, and Martinez has given himself an early opportunity to join that short list.

Indians: Shuffled lineup tries to deal with lefties
Certainly, Cy Young Award winners Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, who will pitch on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, carry considerable clout.

But Smyly might present the biggest matchup issue of this series for the Indians, simply because they've struggled so mightily against left-handed starters. They are 4-11 in games in which a southpaw starts for the opposition.

"A lot of it has to do with that guy on the mound," Ryan Raburn said after one such recent loss. "Unfortunately for us, we're not getting much going -- especially against lefties."

• The continuing struggles of Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana finally prompted a lineup change by Indians manager Terry Francona on Sunday, when he batted the pair sixth and seventh, respectively. Francona did not think that change would be a long-term one, but it could carry over into Monday's series opener.

Worth noting
• The Tigers will go with a short bullpen for this series thanks to six starting pitchers, having optioned Justin Miller to Triple-A Toledo on Sunday to make room for Anibal Sanchez's return from the DL. Robbie Ray, who made two starts in Sanchez's place, will remain with the team and start Thursday, giving Rick Porcello extra rest between starts to deal with soreness in his left side.

• The Tigers' Martinez (.351) and the Indians' David Murphy (.339) entered the week with the two highest batting averages with two strikes in the Majors.

• Detroit has a 16-12 record at Progressive Field, dating back to the beginning of the 2012 season. The Tigers were 9-1 in Cleveland last season.

• Michael Brantley has hit safely in 15 consecutive games at Progressive Field. That's tied with the Mets' Daniel Murphy (whose streak is also active) for the longest such streak this season. Comments