DETROIT -- The temperature felt like one last round of winter in Michigan, and the Tigers and Indians struggled through it. The game itself felt like a preview of what's to come in the American League Central this summer.
"They always feel like playoff games, and that's the way it should be," catcher Alex Avila said of this rivalry after Wednesday's 3-2 loss to the Tribe at Comerica Park. "The reason why we've won three straight division titles is because we've been able to play really well against our division and beat our division. That's important. It's extremely difficult to win our division and not play well against your own guys."
This one had a little more of an October feel than others just because of the weather. If the Tigers are going to get back to October, they're going to have to get through the Indians again -- maybe not at the same rate as last year, when they won 15 out of 19 from Cleveland, but they'll need wins.
"If you can beat the teams in your division, you're setting yourself apart a couple games," Avila said. "We've played these guys really well but maybe had a .500 or sub-.500 record against somebody else."
They had their chance Wednesday, even after Anibal Sanchez walked his first three batters, even after Zach McAllister flummoxed them for six innings of one-run ball, even after Torii Hunter was called upon for a sacrifice bunt with the tying run on and grounded into a double play.
The Tigers had just two runners in scoring position against McAllister, but they put the tying run in scoring position in the eighth and ninth. The run was 90 feet away in the ninth via slumping Avila's double and Michael Bourn's error, with Don Kelly -- author of four sacrifice flies and seven RBIs with a runner on third and less than two outs last season -- pinch-hitting for Alex Gonzalez.
It was the kind of game the Tigers pulled out against Cleveland last season, whether it was an Avila home run or another set of heroics from Miguel Cabrera to get them through. Seven of their 19 games last year were decided by two runs or less, and three went to extra innings.
This time, it didn't happen. Instead of beating Chris Perez, who's now pitching setup for the Dodgers, they fell to John Axford, who struck out Kelly and retired Rajai Davis.
"He made some really good pitches to Kelly," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "Kelly's a guy that's hurt us in the past, and he made some real good pitches."
By that point, the temperature had dropped from 42 degrees at first pitch -- an appropriate number for the Tigers' Jackie Robinson Day celebrations -- into the mid-30s. The way the game unfolded made it hard for many to tell.
"There wasn't going to be much offense today, as cold as it was," Avila said. "It was a good baseball game. All the games against the Indians are going to be a fight to the end."
Wednesday, incredibly, was one of those games, despite a near-disastrous opening two innings from Sanchez, who was struggling mightily to find his grip on the ball on a cold Michigan evening. He walked the bases loaded from the outset, drawing a swing from an Indians hitter at only one of his first 19 pitches.
"As soon as you step on the field, it's really cold," Sanchez said. "I think by last inning, my body's shaking from the cold weather. I just tried to make adjustments, pitch by pitch. I know the situation's going to be hard after three walks in the first inning, and I was behind in the count to [Carlos] Santana.
His 20th pitch, and just his sixth strike, was a godsend, bringing a swing from cleanup hitter Santana and a double-play grounder to slow the rally. Bourn scored on the play, but that was all the Indians got. By inning's end, Ian Kinsler's leadoff double and run in the bottom half had essentially erased it.
Not until Yan Gomes' second-inning triple into the gap did the Indians have a base hit, but it was big, scoring Asdrubal Cabrera and David Murphy after they reached on a Miguel Cabrera error and another Sanchez walk, respectively.
"That was my third fastball that I throw in the same spot," Sanchez said, "and I think he was looking for the pitch after the swing and miss on the second strike."
That was the Indians' only hit with runners in scoring position. They went 1-for-13; the Tigers went 1-for-9, with Cabrera's eighth-inning RBI single their only damage. That, essentially, was it.
Sanchez retired the next nine Cleveland hitters after Gomes, striking out six of them with a cocktail of breaking balls and offspeed stuff, but the gapper held up. McAllister had some of the same problems with gripping the ball in the cold that Sanchez did, but he also had half the walks.
"I know I struggled against them last year, too," said McAllister. "It wasn't just one of us. It was all of us. To be able to go out there and put together a good game, and also for us to get a win, is the most important thing."