DETROIT -- Justin Verlander waited more than an hour through a rain delay in Cleveland to get started on his current winning streak after the Indians put him into his rough stretch last month. On Friday, the Tigers ace pulled a fifth-inning escape to get his latest win at Comerica Park, then tried another elusive move to get past the seventh.
Not even an end-around on manager Jim Leyland was going to get him into the eighth inning. He still got his fourth consecutive victory, though a ninth-inning rally off Jose Valverde made it much closer than many would have liked.
"I've still got a ways to go," Verlander said after the 7-5 win over Cleveland. "I've still got some work to do. But it's nice to be able to go out there and get wins for our ballclub."
Detroit's third consecutive win over the Tribe left the Tigers standing as the lone team in the American League Central with a winning record. While Detroit's 3 1/2-game lead is its largest of the season, the Indians' fifth consecutive loss dropped them back to .500 for the first time since May 5.
"This team is so special in my mind already that I always believe," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "And I don't think that's going to change. I just think we're going to figure this out."
The Tigers still had plenty on their minds from a big victory, from Leyland's unexpected objection towards Verlander's dugout move to the two home runs off Valverde that turned a four-run lead into a game that was a swing away from extra innings.
Still, they came out with reason to believe they might be finding their better form. Victor Martinez's three-hit game, including his third home run in eight games, was one reason.
"If he gets hitting like we know he can, we're going to have a real good offense," Leyland said.
Verlander was another. He has now won four consecutive starts, the last three each with seven innings of three-hit ball. He had the makings of a gem through four innings on Friday, allowing a hit and a walk, then had to endure a three-run fifth that included two infield hits, two line-drive singles and one hard-hit double by Jason Kipnis that hit off of Torii Hunter's glove as he tried to make a running catch at the fence.
Verlander went from a 5-0 lead to the potential tying run in scoring position for the middle of the Indians order, then got out of it with a first-pitch popout from the normally patient Nick Swisher and a Michael Brantley fly out on a 3-1 pitch, maintaining a 5-3 lead.
"I felt tonight was better than I have been," Verlander said. "That one inning, it's not like I got hit around too bad. They got a couple of infield hits mixed in there, and it is what it is. That's the life of a starting pitcher, you're going to run into an inning every now and again, so I'm definitely pleased."
A one-out single and a walk in the sixth put the potential tying run back on base with one out, but Verlander ended the threat with by fanning Drew Stubbs for his sixth strikeout of the night. A seven-pitch seventh against the top third of the Indians order allowed him to exit with a flourish -- or not.
"Leyland always stands right there at the end of the stairs," Verlander said, "and he put me back out for the seventh. I only threw like four or five pitches, so I tried to circumvent the system, and not get the customary handshake. So I tried to go the other way and sneak around him, but he was too quick for me and caught me at the bottom of those stairs anyway."
It seemed like a funny moment, but Leyland wasn't laughing afterwards.
"You might think that was comical," Leyland said, "But I don't think that was comical at all."
The reaction, when relayed, caught Verlander by surprise.
"If he wants to be mad, he can be mad," Verlander said, "But, I mean, I wanted to stay in the game. I had a quick inning and I wasn't trying to play a joke on him, I just wanted to stay in the game. You know he always stands there and sticks out his hand, so I figured if I snuck around him he'd let me go back out there."
Said catcher Brayan Pena: "He's one of those guys you have to kill him to take the baseball out of his hands."
By the ninth, nobody was laughing.
Valverde went five days without pitching after the Orioles homered twice off him last Friday for a ninth-inning rally and a blown save. The first of those home runs came off a splitter.
A day after Valverde returned with an easy ninth inning for a save against the Rays, the Indians were seemingly looking for his splitter with two strikes. In the cases of Jason Giambi and Drew Stubbs, they hit them out to turn a 7-3 game into a 7-5 nailbiter.
"Those two pitches were good pitches," Valverde said. "Like I said, you have to give credit to the hitters. That's it."
Said Leyland: "They were two split-fingers, and they just golfed them. That happens, but the key to that is the fact that he didn't walk anybody. For me, I'm happy with that."
It wasn't a save situation, but Kipnis' two-out single put the tying run on base and extended the ninth to give Swisher a shot at redemption.
Valverde threw four fastballs to Swisher, who grounded the last to second baseman Ramon Santiago to end it.