Tigers kept on pushing to win division race

Tigers kept on pushing to win division race

Tigers kept on pushing to win division race
KANSAS CITY -- The silence in the Tigers' clubhouse was deafening when they left Chicago two weeks ago, three games behind the White Sox in the American League Central race with 16 games to play. They needed help, and they needed it fast, but they needed improvement most of all.

"The pressure's on, but it's been that way for a while now," outfielder Austin Jackson said. "We know what we have to do. We're capable of doing it."

What followed was a glimpse of the baseball everyone thought the Tigers were capable of producing, even if it was a completely different fashion than expected.

Two weeks later, as the Tigers celebrated their second straight AL Central title, Jackson was asked how they turned it around.

"It took us a little bit, but we never gave up," Jackson said. "We stayed even-keeled in here. We kept enjoying the game and having fun."

When they finally clinched on Monday night with two games to spare, that fun came out. It could've been dismissed as a stepping stone for a team with loftier expectations. But the way the Tigers had to rally for this, leading for just four days after May 1 until they took over the lead last week, they were going to savor it.

"It's great, man. We got it," AL MVP Award candidate Miguel Cabrera said. "This feels awesome. We've got to give credit to the White Sox, Kansas City, everybody because it was a good race, unbelievable race. We're happy. We're proud, too, because it was a lot of pressure.

"Everybody said we weren't going to make it. We did. It's unbelievable."

It wasn't a stretch like last year's 12-game winning streak that pushed the Tigers, but it was some of their best, most consistent play that swung the race, largely against teams they were supposed to beat. While the White Sox lost five straight to the Royals and the Angels and seemingly lost their magic in the process, the Tigers -- the much-maligned division favorites labeled as underachievers for most of the summer -- turned in their best stretch since midseason, winning 10 out of 14.

Monday was their seventh win in their last eight games, matching their best eight-game stretch of the year.

"We didn't really have a winning streak," setup man Joaquin Benoit said. "We'd win a couple games, then we'd lose a couple games. We just tried to stay focused and keep believing."

Better late than never.

Or as Benoit looks at it, better to be playing your best baseball at the end.

"I've been to the playoffs for three straight years," said Benoit, who also went with the Rays in 2010. "I sense that this is the year. We've been through struggles, but we haven't been on a winning streak. This is a good way to start."

The Tigers' most critical stretch began with starting pitching, even after losing one of their most important starters. While Max Scherzer dealt with shoulder soreness that knocked him out of one start and kept him out of another, Justin Verlander won four consecutive starts, allowing two earned runs over 28 innings in the process. It was the kind of success he enjoyed in abundance last year on his way to AL Cy Young and MVP honors, but it was his best stretch of this season.

"We fell behind, we played not quite the way that everybody expected us to," Verlander said, "but I think we showed what we were really made of this last month when almost every game was like a playoff game, when we needed to win. We've got a lot of veterans with a lot of poise here, and I think we're dangerous."

Doug Fister, his oblique and groin injuries behind him, looked more like the late-season discovery from last year with each start, from a shutout of the Twins to an AL record nine consecutive strikeouts against the Royals last week in Detroit.

Anibal Sanchez, the Trade Deadline addition who struggled for much of August to make the adjustment to American League hitting, looked like a front-line, strike-pounding starter at just the right time. His three-hitter essentially carried the Tigers to a 2-0 win over the Royals last week in Detroit. His 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball kept the Tigers alive in Minnesota on Sunday until Prince Fielder's two-run home run put Detroit in front.

That 2-1 win on Sunday was one of three one-run games the Tigers won in a five-day stretch. They went 0-11 in one-run games over the previous month before that.

They weren't always pretty, and they were rarely ever slugfests, but they were the kind of games they weren't winning earlier. They counted in the standings all the same.

"Everything just fell into place," Jackson said.

It fell in the way everyone expected it to when the season began, with Detroit on top. It was far more suspenseful along the way, right down to the final couple weeks.

"That's what baseball's all about: races," Gerald Laird said. "And Chicago battled us to the end. They've got a good ballclub over there. We knew they weren't going to go away. They got up three games about a week and a half ago, but we didn't panic. We just played our game, and we got some help from other teams and were able to play good baseball."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.