When they hopped on the team bus at Tropicana Field for their Sept. 6 flight to Kansas City, the Tigers could all but hear baseball's ode to joy: champagne corks popping.
They couldn't say as much -- not with four weeks and 26 games remaining in the regular season.
And it was a good thing they didn't. The Tigers were about to lose five consecutive games. They were on the verge of seeing a seven-game lead slip to two games in the span of 13 days.
It was a necessary fact for an otherwise relieved band of Tigers to remember Sunday after an immense 6-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins gave the Tigers a three-game lead with 13 games remaining, a nice breath of oxygen for a team that had all but suffocated within the Metrodome's claustrophobic walls during its final-ever series. Their lead was trimmed to 2 1/2 with the Twins' victory Monday.
But what did it accomplish other than to provide the Tigers with a bit more wiggle room, and a smidgen less risk, as they head into their final games, 10 of which will be played against the Twins and Chicago White Sox?
"This time of year, it's better to get out of here with three rather than one," manager Jim Leyland said after Sunday's game, referring to the lead the Tigers held over the second-place Twins. "But it's still going to go down to the wire."
Leyland has been saying that all along, simply because he believes it. The Tigers have shown zero ability to bury the opposition in a division begging for a runaway victor.
He also knows the talent on the banged-up Twins (even with Justin Morneau and Joe Crede gone for the season with injuries) looms as a stake in the Tigers' heart. It's the same story with the White Sox, who for reasons that could yet cost a few people their jobs in Chicago, have not played up to capabilities.
Playing those teams 10 times in the next 12 days is nothing safeguarded by a three-game lead. Likewise, the Cleveland Indians, beginning tonight, are capable of doing to the Tigers precisely what the Kansas City Royals did in sweeping a three-game, midweek set from Leyland's team two weeks ago, following Detroit's triumphant blitz of Tampa Bay.
The Tigers, though, should like their chances to open the playoffs in two weeks for two succinct reasons:
• 1. Their pitching remains their savior. The Big Three of Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson, and Rick Porcello will start nine of their final 13 games, with Verlander likely to finish things off, if necessary, on Oct. 4, when the Tigers close out the regular season against the White Sox at Comerica Park.
• 2. The defense has been good beyond measure, more so than can even be quantified by the current streak of one error in the Tigers' last 18 games. The magic is that their infield makes so many plays that show up as put-outs rather than base hits.
Whether it was Miguel Cabrera launching his 6-foot-5 frame horizontally to spear a ground ball that he turned into a force-out at second; or Placido Polanco anticipating that a breaking ball would be pulled a couple of feet to his left and throwing out a batter from short right field; or Adam Everett quietly turning the difficult into defensive simplicity at shortstop; or Ramon Santiago, like Polanco, anticipating that Nick Punto would try to drive one through the hole at short, which enabled Santiago to backhand a ball and snap-throw a force-out at second -- the Tigers' defense was sterling during the Twins series and remains its Most Valuable Ally.
The team is blessed also with a bullpen that could be entrusted with the country's borders. It rarely has a breakdown.
Zach Miner has settled into his role as linchpin between the starters and the bullpen's back end.
Bobby Seay has become a left-handed situational maestro, as when he lured Jason Kubel into a Twins-killing double play in the eighth inning Sunday.
Brandon Lyon was rocked for a home run by Michael Cuddyer in Saturday's horror-show loss to the Twins, but Cuddyer has been hitting home runs against everyone of late, and in fairness to Lyon, he was due to show that he was mortal at some point this month.
Leyland has gotten another lift in less dramatic ways from rookie Ryan Perry. He has been a different pitcher after a short midseason apprenticeship at Triple-A Toledo. Perry has better control and is showing why he will likely be the Tigers' setup man in 2010.
And then there's Fernando Rodney, who would love to make it to 40 saves (he has 33), not only because of what that magic number would do for his pending free-agent marketability but more because it would all but assure that the Tigers could at last dodge corks and pour bubbly, celebrating a division title they have 13 games to finally call theirs.
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The Tigers' chances for an AL Central title appear good with Edwin Jackson and Justin Verlander set to start six of their final 13 games. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)
Series: Three games, Progressive Field, Cleveland First pitch: 7:05 p.m. tonight-Thursday TV/radio: All games on FSD/WXYT 1270 and 97.1 Series probables: Tonight -- Edwin Jackson (12-7, 3.37) vs. Justin Masterson (4-8, 4.49); Wednesday -- Rick Porcello (13-9, 4.22) vs. David Huff (10-8, 5.98); Thursday -- Justin Verlander (16-9, 3.44) vs. Jeremy Sowers (6-10, 4.92) Tonight's scouting report Jackson: Hasn't had the zest of late that his pitches showed through the season's first five months. But Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp and Jackson believe they have made a mechanical adjustment that could put Jackson back on track. Masterson: Another of the Indians rookies who looks as if he has a nifty future. Masterson has been solid in his early outings and could be rough on a Tigers team that hates playing catch-up baseball.
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