CLEVELAND -- Before Friday's series opener against Texas, Indians manager Manny Acta declared the Rangers the best team in the American League.
Perhaps he provided his own ballclub with a little incentive.
Cleveland, out to prove its claim on first place in the AL Central is no fluke, topped Texas, 6-3, behind a steady, Rangers-like hitting attack.
Even newcomer Johnny Damon offered a clutch at-bat, handing the bullpen some wiggle room. Damon's two-out, two-run triple in the seventh inning gave Cleveland a three-run edge and took some pressure off setup man Vinnie Pestano and closer Chris Perez, who shut the door on his league-leading 10th save.
"They have so many good hitters over there and guys that put up good at-bats," Perez said. "That was a big hit by Johnny, giving us a couple of extra runs. To have that three-run cushion felt pretty good."
The Rangers arrived in Cleveland leading the AL in team batting average (.288), on-base percentage (.347) and slugging (.470). They checked in at second in runs per game (5.44) and home runs (37, one fewer than the Yankees). It was the Indians, however, who displayed an early power display and well-paced offensive onslaught against Rangers righty Colby Lewis.
Right fielder Shin-Soo Choo launched his first home run of the year beyond the center-field wall in the second frame to give the Tribe a two-run lead. Third baseman Jack Hannahan then tacked on a run an inning later with a long ball.
"When Colby made a mistake, they made him pay," said Texas outfielder David Murphy.
Hannahan's hit was initially ruled a triple, as the 32-year-old scurried around the bases after the ball ricocheted off the top of the right-field wall and caromed past Nelson Cruz back toward the infield. Acta convinced home-plate umpire Dale Scott to review the call, and the hit was ruled a home run.
Jeanmar Gomez, the only starter who had to battle his way onto the roster in Spring Training, kept the Rangers' explosive offense in check. The right-hander recorded 12 outs on ground balls in seven innings, holding Texas to three runs on eight hits.
"Gomez was terrific against such a tough lineup that the Rangers put out there," Acta said. "He started the game using his offspeed stuff a lot and left a few up in the zone. The second time around, he made adjustments and really went to his fastball. He gave us a great seven innings against that baseball team."
In the sixth inning, the Indians gave Gomez a lead that he preserved by masterfully escaping harm an inning later. He yielded a leadoff single to first baseman Mitch Moreland. Alberto Gonzalez then tried to move Moreland into scoring position with a sacrifice bunt. Gomez scooped up the ball and fired a throw to second base, but not before Moreland slid in safely, giving the Rangers a pair of baserunners with no outs.
Gomez, however, got help from a sinkerballer's best friend, the double-play ball, which he induced off the bat of second baseman Ian Kinsler. Shortstop Elvis Andrus, who extended his hitting streak against Cleveland to 24 games with a first-inning single, then grounded out to end the threat.
"That was huge for him," Acta said. "That could have been the end for him, because he took the risk at second base and put himself in that spot."
The Indians have had a knack for two-out hits this season. It didn't take long for Damon to catch on to the trend. Cleveland entered the game hitting .273 with two outs, better than its overall collective average of .243.
Damon, who joined the club on Tuesday, admitted that he offered "lazy swings on pitches off the plate" in his first three at-bats against Lewis, resulting in three flyouts to left field. But in his final trip to the dish, he sent a curveball on the outside part of the plate just past the reach of Josh Hamilton, who nearly tracked down the ball in front of the center-field wall. The 38-year-old Damon scampered to third base as Casey Kotchman and Hannahan scored.
"He has done it that way before any of these guys even signed a professional contract," Acta said. "It's good that he can join the Tribe and start doing that kind of stuff. He can slow down the game; he's been in so many big situations. Nothing is going to faze him. It was good to see him get the big hit, especially driving in two runs."
Damon has started the last three games, all of which the Indians have won.
"It was good to come through and give us some insurance," Damon said. "What's good about this team is it seems like it's someone different every single night, and that's what good teams are made of."
Damon is drawing from experience. He has played on eight teams that have reached the postseason. This Indians club -- holding a 1 1/2-game lead in the division -- is still working out some kinks and learning how good it can be. It certainly can't hurt, though, to topple the team that has captured the last two AL pennants, even if for just one night.
"We feel like we haven't played our best ball," Perez said. "We're starting to swing it a little bit better. But we still think we have a lot of room for improvement, and that's encouraging. [Justin] Masterson just got his first win. Ubaldo [Jimenez] is working on some stuff. Our offense is starting to come around.
"It's really encouraging to know that we haven't played our best ball and we're in first place."