DETROIT -- The Tigers were beginning to force Zach McAllister to work for each out. The Indians right-hander had fought through consecutive long at-bats against Victor Martinez and Austin Jackson, giving up a walk and a single in the process in the fourth inning on Wednesday night.
With two outs, runners on the corners and his pitch count at 30 for the inning, McAllister reached back and elevated a 93-mph fastball up in the strike zone to Alex Avila. Detroit's catcher swung through the pitch for a strikeout, giving McAllister a crucial escape that helped pave the way for a 3-2 victory for the Indians at Comerica Park.
"That was a big inning for me," McAllister said. "Those middle innings of games are where it really did me a lot of damage last year. To be able to get through those, and finish the fourth inning the way that I did -- the strikeout -- and just be able to execute some big pitches when I really needed to, that was important."
Through the inconsistency of Cleveland's rotation to this point, McAllister has begun to look like a stabilizing cog. The big righty found a rhythm on another frigid evening in Detroit, keeping the Tigers' potent offense at bay and doing his part to put the Indians back in the win column.
The victory came on the heels of Cleveland dropping three out of four to the White Sox in Chicago.
McAllister led the charge with six strong innings, during which he limited Detroit to one run on four hits. The right-hander ended with four strikeouts and a pair of walks in the 97-pitch effort, and he lowered his season ERA to 2.04 through three outings. Over his past two trips up the hill, McAllister has yielded only one run over 13 2/3 innings, with 11 strikeouts and two walks.
"He looks good," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "He should feel good about himself. He's throwing the ball really well. He got back to where he's throwing that fastball down, and it works for him. His fastball is his best pitch and he knows it. When he locates it, he's really good."
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus was impressed with what he saw from McAllister, too.
"He's very confident and effective with his fastball," Ausmus said. "He didn't throw a ton offspeed. He kind of comes at hitters. He's got a little run in to right-handed hitters, which can speed the batters up. He pitched well."
The Indians (7-7) enjoyed an auspicious start, taking 12 balls within the first 16 pitches thrown by right-hander Anibal Sanchez. The Tigers starter opened the first inning by walking the bases full with no outs -- Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Jason Kipnis each drew a free pass -- putting Cleveland in prime position to score.
Following a mound visit, Sanchez got Carlos Santana to offer at a pitch, and the result was a double play that plated one run but also hurt the Tribe's rally. Sanchez then induced an inning-ending flyout off the bat of Michael Brantley to escape further harm.
"Me, Swish and Kip ended up working a walk. That was big, man," Bourn said. "We got on the board with one. We could've made more damage, but the time will come when we'll open that thing up."
Detroit countered in the home half of the first inning when Ian Kinsler ripped a pitch from McAllister down the third-base line, beyond the diving grasp of third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall for a leadoff double. Two batters later, Miguel Cabrera brought Kinsler home with a groundout, pulling the game into a 1-1 deadlock.
Sanchez flinched again in the second inning, but only after Cabrera mishandled a grounder from Asdrubal Cabrera at first base for a costly error. After David Murphy followed with a walk, Yan Gomes drilled a pitch from Sanchez to deep center field. The spacious grounds at Comerica Park allowed for a triple, scoring two to put Cleveland up, 3-1.
"There wasn't going to be a lot of hitting tonight," Francona said. "We made [Sanchez] throw the ball in the strike zone. When he didn't, we took our walks, and then Gomer hit the ball in the gap to really cash in our runs."
After slipping at the start of the game, Sanchez settled in and struck out eight in a span of 12 batters between the second and fifth inning. The righty exited after his pitch count escalated to 104 in five innings due to the volume of strikeouts and walks (four). Cleveland managed just two hits off Sanchez, but that was sufficient in the end.
The Tigers did attempt a rally against the Tribe's bullpen in the eighth inning.
Rajai Davis led things off by lofting a pitch from Indians setup man Cody Allen to shallow right field, where Kipnis had the ball bounce off his glove for an error. Kinsler then used a bunt down the third-base line for a single -- narrowly beating the throw from Chisenhall.
Francona challenged the safe ruling, but the umpires ruled that the call stands after a replay review. Two batters later, Cabrera pulled a pitch from Allen into left field for an RBI single, cutting Cleveland's lead to 3-2. Allen then gave up a base hit to Martinez, but he recovered with a strikeout of Jackson to avoid more damage.
Cleveland closer John Axford -- who blew a save in his previous appearance -- finished the job in the ninth, stranding a runner at third and earning his fifth save of the season.
Beating the Tigers in the first meeting of the season felt good for the Indians, who went 4-15 against their American League Central rivals last year.
"They were able to dominate us last year, and we don't want that to happen again," Bourn said. "That was the difference between us winning the division. They beat us. They beat up on us. ... We can't take it lightly against anybody in the division, but they're the top of the division. They won it the last three years, so they're the reigning champs.
"You've got to knock them off. Until you knock them off, you can't be the king of the hill."