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Tribe, Axford fend off late rally from Tigers

04/17/2014, 12:47am EDT

Cleveland takes opener of series in Detroit

DETROIT — By the end of Wednesday’s first meeting between the Tigers and Indians, a quick head count could have pegged the attendance at Comerica Park.

It was a night fit for neither man nor fan, the kind of night where Cleveland manager Terry Francona correctly predicted the bats would remain on the rocks and the space heaters inside the dugouts doubled as a giant magnet for players seeking relief from temperatures in the 30s.

Beforehand, Francona was skeptical when a reporter noted at least the snow had melted after Tuesday’s freezeout.

"I think they just moved it," he said..

Yet just when the Tigers appeared to reward the few thousand bone-chilled diehards, the Indians reversed the script.

A year after the Tigers bullied their AL Central rivals, Cleveland escaped with a 3-2 victory in Round 1 this season.

Indians closer John Axford worked around a one-out double by Alex Avila to preserve a one-run lead in the ninth inning. After Avila found the right-center gap and advanced to third on a misplay by centerfielder Michael Bourn, Axford struck out pinch-hitter Don Kelly before Rajai Davis grounded out to shortstop to end the game.

Cleveland won for just the sixth time in its last 24 games against the Tigers. Detroit fell for the fifth time in seven games since opening the season 4-0.

"I know I struggled against the [Tigers[ last year," Indians starter Zach McAllister said. "It wasn’t just one of us. We all struggled against them. So it’s a good feeling to get started on the right foot."

It was McAllister who saved the Indians from themselves. An error by second baseman Jason Kipnis helped the Tigers draw within one run in the eighth, Bourn’s misplay put the tying run at third base with one out in the ninth, and the Indians missed one chance after another.

Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez was off the rails from the start, even as the Indians did their best to coax him back on.

The Indians took 18 of the night’s first 19 pitches as Sanchez walked the bases loaded with no outs before Carlos Santana took a hero cut on the 20th. His double-play grounder off of a 2-1 offering pushed in Cleveland’s first run but established a theme of never quite making Sanchez and the Tigers pay.

The Indians scored only once in the first and stranded runners in scoring position with less than two outs in four of the next six innings. In all, they went 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position.

Yet it never mattered.

While Sanchez settled after allowing a two-run double to Yan Gomes in the second — he allowed three runs on two hits while walking four and striking out eight over five innings — McCallister was better.

The 6-foot-6 right-hander turned in a second straight strong start, holding the Tigers to one run on four hits in six innings. He tossed 7 2/3 scoreless innings against the Padres last week.

"He looks good," Francona said. "He should feel good about himself."

SMYLY WAITS: Drew Smyly’s wait continues.

The postponement Tuesday pushed back his debut in the Tigers’ starting rotation from Wednesday to Friday. Justin Verlander will start on normal rest today while Smyly — finally — will make his first start since 2012 in Detroit’s series opener against the Angels.

Smyly, who also had an earlier scheduled start rained out, has pitched six scoreless innings over a pair of relief appearances.

"Hopefully, it won’t impact [Smyly] negatively, but we’ll find out," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "He certainly understands and he’s been a pro about it. Unfortunately, the weather has wreaked havoc on our pitching staff."

Contact David Briggs at:, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

Cleveland Indians center fielder Michael Bourn catches the fly hit by Detroit Tigers' Nick Castellanos. ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Tag(s): Pro  Indians  Tigers  David Briggs