BY MICHAEL ROSENBERGFREE PRESS COLUMNIST
The Tigers have not clinched the division, but they have their thumbs on the champagne cork.
They are three up with four to play. They will clinch the division if they beat the Twins this afternoon. The Tigers and Twins combined have seven more games (including one against each other), and the Twins need six to go their way to force a one-game playoff.
The Tigers will clinch it if they go 1-3 the rest of the way and the Twins go 3-1. They will clinch it if they go 2-2 and the Twins go 4-0. They will ... OK, you get the point.
Anything can happen in the American League Central, in baseball, in the world, and I remind you of that mostly so that if the Tigers blow it, you don't claim I jinxed them.
But this feels inevitable -- and if you're a nervous Tigers fan who wants your columnist hung upside down from the centerfield flagpole for using the word "inevitable," then imagine how Twins fans feel right now.
Wednesday night's game felt like a backbreaker for them. In the first inning, the Twins put five straight batters on base, yet scored only two runs. Starting pitcher Eddie Bonine escaped.
"I wouldn't say 'escaped,' " Bonine said, "but obviously a lot more could have happened."
Another time, Delmon Young hit a screaming line drive down the leftfield line that was inches foul. Then Young hit another screaming line drive -- and it was in the one place where second baseman Placido Polanco could catch it. Polanco jumped and snared it.
Three times -- three times -- they fell behind in the count, 3-0, to Twins catcher Joe Mauer, the best hitter in the American League. Do you know what it means to fall behind, 3-0, to Joe Mauer? It's like getting into a cage with a mountain lion and letting him have the first three bites.
Before Wednesday's 7-2 Tigers victory, Mauer had faced a 3-0 count 47 times, according to baseball-reference.com. He had reached base 42 of those 47 times (with a slugging percentage of 1.250).
Wednesday night, the Tigers got him out all three times, including the last at-bat of the night.
And then there was the time when Polanco knocked down a ball, picked it up -- and the Tigers still turned a double play.
When stuff like that goes against you in a crucial game, you start to figure it's not your year. And when it happens to the other team, you start to think it is your year.
The Tigers won't say that. But they surely must feel it. Wednesday night, on paper, was the game the Tigers should have lost. They had Bonine, the unknown 28-year-old, going against Carl Pavano, who had dominated the Tigers this year. Yet after the Twins took that 2-0 lead, the Tigers scored seven runs against Pavano -- and the Twins didn't score again against Bonine or the rest of the staff.
The Tigers have not clinched a playoff spot at home since 1987.
They can do it today. And if not today, then they have Friday, and Saturday, and ...
"We play three games against the White Sox regardless" this weekend, said Zach Miner, who pitched 2 1/3 shutout innings. "It's a good spot to be in."
It is a great spot to be in. Ask the guys in the visitors' clubhouse.
Contact MICHAEL ROSENBERG: 313-222-6052 or email@example.com.
Free Press sports writer Scott Bell will live-blog the Tigers-Twins series finale Thursday afternoon at freep.com/sports. Be sure to stop by for an update or to discuss the action.
The Tigers got the celebrate a 7-2 win on Wednesday night. If they get a win against the Twins this afternoon, it's safe to say that celebration will be even bigger. (Kirthmon F. Dozier / DFP)
A version of this story appears on page 1C of the Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009, print edition of the Detroit Free Press.