DETROIT -- Right before the All-Star break, Brad Ausmus was asked which part of his first-place team might need the most improvement.
Had he been posed the same question Friday night, after Detroit's 9-3 loss to Cleveland at Comerica Park, he might have been compelled to single out the bullpen.
The Tigers' relief pitching didn't open the wound, but it did nothing to stanch the bleeding. A seven-run seventh inning left Detroit in the dust.
"Seven runs is generally going to win a game for a team over the course of nine," Ausmus said. "When you get seven in one inning, that can be a devastating blow."
Anibal Sanchez cruised for six innings, twice retiring at least seven Indians in a row. But his seven-strikeout outing quickly unraveled in the seventh. He allowed the first four Cleveland batters to reach, bringing the Indians to within one on Nick Swisher's two-run single.
"The ball got up in the zone," Ausmus said. "He was real crisp up until that point, but it was almost like he hit a wall."
When Sanchez left, the bullpen provided little help for the second straight game -- similar to the first-half finale, when Justin Verlander was relieved during the Royals' five-run seventh-inning rally that sunk the Tigers.
On Friday, Ian Krol entered to face one batter, longtime Tiger Ryan Raburn, who doubled, erasing the Detroit lead. At that point, with the game knotted at 3, Ausmus wasn't panicking.
"A tie game at home is not the worst place to be in going into the late innings," he said.
Al Alburquerque entered and appeared poised to play the role of hero. He struck out the first two batters he faced and was one pitch away from striking out the side when Jason Kipnis hit a three-run homer, one of his two on the night. Alburquerque threw a slider to Kipnis that he was ready for.
"A slider that was probably a little bit up," catcher Alex Avila said. "I wouldn't say it was a terrible pitch, but obviously trying to look for the strikeout there. It probably caught a little more plate rather than going down and in. But you're talking about centimeters.
"That's all it takes."
Asdrubal Cabrera made it back-to-back homers with another towering blast to right field, and the score was 7-3.
Detroit had scored the game's first run in the third inning, when Ian Kinsler's sacrifice fly scored Nick Castellanos, who had doubled and reached third on Avila's single. The Tigers cushioned Sanchez's lead in the fourth, when Torii Hunter celebrated his birthday as few 39-year-olds do.
Hunter doubled in a run in that frame, then stole third and scored Detroit's third run on catcher Yan Gomes' errant throw. The lead held until the seventh, when it took five batters to cancel it out, and two more to make it a seven-run inning.
Cleveland starter Trevor Bauer threw six innings of three-run ball and struck out Victor Martinez twice in the process. In his first game since July 4, Martinez, who had been sidelined with a sore side, had two hits but recorded just his third multi-strikeout game of the year.
Ausmus said he kept his bullpen on tight pitch limits Friday night to make sure the team wouldn't have to pitch shorthanded for Saturday's day-night doubleheader. The lone unavailable arm might be Chad Smith, who needed 37 pitches to complete the ninth inning.
But with Drew VerHagen making his Major League debut in the first game, the relievers could potentially be called on early. And that's a precarious position to put the bullpen, which has been a weak spot for a significant portion of the season.
"It was underwhelming early. The last couple games, it was underwhelming. But we've had some good outings in between those," Ausmus said.
"The first month of the season, I think the 'pen underperformed. There should be a correction in the second half as a result."
Friday night, however, the second half's unofficial start, was a step in the wrong direction.
Matt Slovin is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.