DETROIT >> When the Detroit Tigers won the AL Central every year from 2011-14, the title often seemed to come down to a handful of head-to-head matchups between the champions and their closest challengers.
The Tigers consistently won those games during that impressive stretch, but so far this year, the roles are reversed.
Detroit's 9-3 loss to Cleveland on Sunday dropped the Tigers to 0-9 against the first-place Indians this season. Cleveland has outscored the Tigers 60-20 in those games, and because of that ineptitude against the AL Central's top team, Detroit was seven games out of first place Monday morning.
"It's frustrating to lose a series like this at home, especially when we came in playing very well," said right-hander Justin Verlander, who allowed eight runs Sunday. "You can't dwell on what's already happened. We've got to look forward to the off day and relax a little bit."
Detroit was off Monday and hosts Miami on Tuesday night. The Tigers (38-38) were only 2 1/2 games out of a wild card following Sunday's loss, but they don't want to let Cleveland get too far ahead. Otherwise, Detroit could find itself in a position disturbingly similar to where the Tigers were last year at the trade deadline.
Detroit traded stars David Price and Yoenis Cespedes last year, and the Tigers were only 3 1/2 games out of a wild card when Price was dealt in late July. The problem was that Detroit trailed first-place Kansas City by double digits, so the wild card was probably the only path to the postseason.
This year, nobody has pulled away in the AL Central, but Cleveland is suddenly threatening to, in part because of its dominance of the Tigers.
"Can't win it, obviously, in the first three months. You can lose it, but I don't think we're at that point at all," Detroit catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "They're playing really good ball right now, and we're able to not play our best ball and still stay in striking distance."
This season has been a far cry from 2013, when the Tigers went 15-4 against Cleveland and held off the Indians by one game in the end. In 2012, Detroit went 12-6 against Chicago and finished three games ahead of the White Sox.
In 2014, it was Kansas City that finished one game back after going 6-13 against the Tigers.
Before being swept in this latest three-game series against Cleveland, the Tigers had been playing pretty well. They're 14-11 in June even with the losses to the Indians included.
Miguel Cabrera is still feared in the middle of the order and Verlander has been effective for the most part. Rookie Michael Fulmer has given the starting rotation a boost, and the bullpen has shown signs of stability now that Shane Greene is pitching in relief and Bruce Rondon has had a few encouraging outings.
"Greene has helped because (Mark) Lowe has been struggling a little bit. If we can get Lowe back, we'll be in great shape, now also with the addition of Rondon," manager Brad Ausmus said recently. "We've got a few more options right now toward the back end of the game."
But against Cleveland, the games haven't always been close in the late innings. Although there's time for the Tigers to chase down the division leaders, Detroit's problems with the Indians represent quite a change from how the AL Central looked just a couple years ago.
"Give the Indians credit, they came in and stuck it to us," Ausmus said. "They were playing well before they got here and they played well here."