CLEVELAND -- The Indians were in control, three outs away from collecting a key opening victory in arguably the most important series of the season. That changed with one ill-fated pitch and a swing that silenced a crowd that had a renewed energy all evening.
In the ninth inning on Monday night, Indians closer Chris Perez surrendered a three-run home run to Alex Avila, turning on the lights to bring an abrupt halt to the Progressive Field party. Starter Corey Kluber saw a brilliant outing that ended with a standing ovation go for naught in a 4-2 loss, and rival Detroit extended its winning streak to nine games.
"This one hurt, no doubt about it," Indians center fielder Michael Bourn said. "We can't lose those. Not against a team like that."
The loss dropped the Tribe four games behind the first-place Tigers in the American League Central standings with three games remaining in this series. For eight innings, Cleveland looked to make a statement with its stellar pitching, strong defense and a just-enough showing on offense against a strong Anibal Sanchez.
That was before things went haywire in the final frame.
Perez, who has not been speaking on the record with reporters for the past several weeks, kept his silence going in the aftermath of a loss draped over his shoulders. The closer headed off the mound to a chorus of boos from the crowd, and he exited the stadium without saying a word to reporters.
That left his teammates to answer for a defeat that felt like a gut punch.
"Every loss is tough," Kluber said. "This one probably more so than another one, but we don't have any choice but to bounce back, come back out and try to win tomorrow."
Indians manager Terry Francona offered the same message.
"That was a hard one," said Francona. "It hurt, but we'll show up tomorrow. We certainly need to be resilient and we've shown that before. If we allow it to get in the way, then we're not the team I thought we were. We'll be OK."
Clinging to a 2-0 lead, Perez -- so dominant in his last 18 appearances since returning from the disabled list -- allowed a leadoff double to Prince Fielder to initiate the unraveling. Victor Martinez followed with a base hit to left field and Fielder sprinted across home plate uncontested to trim the Tribe's lead to 2-1. Perez then walked Andy Dirks to put two runners aboard for Detroit.
After a brief chat on the mound with catcher Carlos Santana, Perez turned his attention to Avila. Detroit's catcher proceeded to lift a 1-0 offering to deep left-center field, where Bourn slowed his run at the warning track in left-center field, watching helplessly as the ball sailed over the 19-foot wall for a three-run home run.
"The walk is probably just as hurtful as anything during the inning," Francona said. "And then Avila, his first at-bat he hit a ball to left-center. I turned to [third-base coach Brad Mills] when he hit that and said, 'When he hits the ball that direction, he makes me nervous.' He ended up jumping on a ball that way."
For Perez, it marked his first blown save in 12 chances, dating back to his return from a right shoulder injury at the end of June. The meltdown also fell on the one-year anniversary of Detroit's 10-8 win over the Indians last season in a game in which Perez coughed up five runs in the 10th and decisive frame.
As Avila put Perez's pitch in flight, there was an initial gasp from the Progressive Field crowd, which had been raucous throughout the clash of AL Central contenders.
"I'm not doing it to shut up the crowd," Avila said. "But it's definitely a nice feature about it."
The boos began when the Tigers grabbed the 4-2 lead, and they grew in decibels with each step Perez took from the mound to the dugout after being pulled from the game by Francona. Just like that, the Indians saw their 11-game home winning streak snapped.
Cleveland also saw another strong showing from Kluber pushed to the side.
Over 7 1/3 innings, Kluber used an effective mix of sinkers, breaking balls and a changeup to scatter six hits and generate 10 outs on the ground. The right-hander ended the evening with six strikeouts against just one walk, and headed off the hill with one out in the eighth inning amid rousing cheers from the home faithful.
Kluber also benefited from some strong defense. Second baseman Jason Kipnis made a handful of highlight-reel plays, left fielder Michael Brantley collected his AL-best 10th assist by throwing out Torii Hunter at second base in the first inning and Bourn made a spectacular running catch in left-center to rob Avila of extra bases in the second.
"The defense was amazing tonight," Kluber said.
Sanchez was nearly as effective, however, and he kept the Tigers within striking distance.
Brantley singled and scored twice for Cleveland -- first on a second-inning single from Jason Giambi and then on a fourth-inning double from Santana -- but that was all the Indians managed against Sanchez. In the second inning, Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson helped his pitcher with a leaping grab at the wall to steal a possible home run away from Lonnie Chisenhall.
"Jackson goes up and gets one," Francona said. "That kept it to 2-0. It seemed like both pitchers got better and stronger as the game went."
Sanchez gave Detroit 7 2/3 innings and piled up 11 strikeouts along the way, giving Detroit a chance to rally against the Indians. The Tigers did just that, spoiling the good feelings that resided in the home ballpark for much of the night.
As a result, Cleveland slipped to 3-10 against the Tigers this season.
"If you want to be at the top, you got to be able to knock them off," Bourn said. "You can't depend on whoever it is out there to knock them off and then think you're going to win the division.
"Against this team, you can't miss opportunities. You got to have it. It's as simple as that."