CLEVELAND -- Someone changed the number plate over Justin Verlander's locker from 35 to 100, and there was an iced champagne bottle sitting on a shelf next to his duffel bag.
On a night the Detroit Tigers desperately needed a win, Verlander notched a special one of his own.
Verlander gave Detroit exactly what it needed, becoming baseball's first 17-game winner and getting his 100th career win as the division-leading Tigers opened a three-game lead in the AL Central with a 4-3 win over the second-place Cleveland Indians on Thursday night.
Verlander (17-5) allowed three hits and struck out 10 in seven dominant innings as the Tigers avoided a three-game sweep and ended a 13-game losing streak in Cleveland. He was also on the mound for Detroit's previous win at Progressive Field on May 8, 2010.
Verlander downplayed his milestone. In the middle of a playoff race, he's not thinking about himself.
"It's exciting to get there, but in the big scheme of things it doesn't mean all that much," he said. "It's not like 100 wins was ever a goal. There's other things going on here with this team. Obviously, this win was special because of the other circumstances surrounding it."
In winning the finale, the Tigers kept some distance over the Indians, who did trim one game off Detroit's lead over the past three days. The teams will play 10 more times this season, including a season-ending three-game series at Comerica Park from Sept. 26-28.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland expects the Indians to stay around until the end.
"They're not going anywhere," he said. "They're for real. They're going to be there. We know that."
Fausto Carmona (5-12) gave the Indians a solid outing, but they couldn't do enough against Verlander, who despite saying he was battling himself internally from the outset added another performance to a resume that has Cy Young clout.
"I didn't have a good feel," Verlander said. "But I was able to find enough to get through seven (innings)."
Verlander lobbied Leyland to leave him in for the eighth, to no avail.
Joaquin Benoit pitched a 1-2-3 eighth and flawless closer Jose Valverde worked the ninth for his 33rd consecutive save, breaking the single-season club record he shared with Guillermo Hernandez, who did it in 1984.
"If he doesn't have a 33 over his locker, he should," Verlander said of his teammate.
Carlos Santana homered for the Indians, who in winning the series kept the pressure on Detroit.
"It was a great series," manager Manny Acta said. "We came in trying to shorten up the distance and we did. The goal was to sweep them, but if you can't sweep them, two out of three isn't bad."
Verlander didn't do it alone. He got some help from center fielder Austin Jackson, who made a sensational leaping catch against the center-field wall in the sixth to preserve Detroit's 4-3 lead.
With a runner on first and one out, Santana sent a drive to straightaway center. Jackson sprinted back, tracking the ball with each stride as neared the warning track. He stopped under the wall, jumped and snagged Santana's deep shot that looked as if it would have stayed in the park.
Verlander waved his glove in thanks to Jackson, who has made similar plays this season.
"He seems to make the play seem routine, when it's not," Verlander said. "He made a fantastic play once again."
Acta conducted his pregame meeting with reporters in a room below the Indians' dugout, where it was less noisy. Acta has lost his voice and could only whisper his comments.
He made it loud and clear, however, that the Indians needed to be aggressive against Verlander.
"You have to try and get your pitch and not miss it," he said.
He was on the money.
Verlander led 4-0 after the Tigers scored three times in the second. And with one of baseball's best on the mound, that deficit must have felt like 40-0 to the Indians.
However, Santana hit a one-out homer, his 18th, in the bottom half to give Cleveland new life. Then, some uncharacteristic wildness by Verlander in the third helped the Indians close within one.
He walked No. 9 hitter Lou Marson with one out and put rookie Jason Kipnis on with a two-out walk. Asdrubal Cabrera fell behind 1-2 before pulling a two-run double into the right-field corner. As Cabrera scooted into second standing up, Verlander dropped his head in disappointment.
It was the only time he showed emotion. Otherwise, Verlander was cold and nasty.
"That's not me," Verlander said of the walks, "especially not me this year."
He took the mound with a 1-0 lead after the Tigers scored an unearned run in their first at-bat.
Jackson led off with a routine grounder, but third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall's throw sailed over Santana's head and into the photographer's pen. Jackson moved up on a groundout and scored when Magglio Ordonez hit a liner toward the gap that right fielder Kosuke Fukudome snagged with a diving catch.
After the third out, Cabrera and Santana had a heated exchange in the dugout and had to be separated by Carmona and others.
Acta wasn't upset his players squared off.
"I like it," he said. "It means people around here want to win. Asdrubal confronted Carlos about not catching the throw. Carlos didn't like the way he talked to him. That's fire. I like it. People care. That's all I can ask for."
Verlander is the 16th Detroit pitcher to get 100 wins. He's also the fastest to do it since Denny McLain in 1969. .. Verlander is just 12-11 in his career against Cleveland, but he's 8-1 with a 2.65 ERA in his last 11 starts vs. the Indians. ... Indians outfielder Michael Brantley missed his second straight game with a sore right wrist. ... The Tigers were without outfielder Brennan Boesch. He has a sprained right thumb and will likely miss at least a few games. ... The Indians open a three-game series Friday with the Minnesota Twins. Cleveland's Justin Masterson (9-7), who pitched just two innings before being pulled after a two-hour rain delay on Tuesday, will come back and start on short rest against Carl Pavano (6-9).
- Home Plate Umpire - Mark Carlson
- First Base Umpire - Tim Timmons
- Second Base Umpire - Jeff Kellogg
- Third Base Umpire - Eric Cooper