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Tigers take first step toward defending AL crown

Tigers take first step toward defending AL crown

Tigers take first step toward defending AL crown

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Tigers have punched their ticket for a chance to defend their American League title. They're one win away from upgrading their seat.

With Tuesday's 4-2 win over the Twins, the Tigers guaranteed themselves at least a share of the AL Central title, and a Wild Card spot if they somehow lost out on that. One more win -- either Wednesday night against the Twins or this weekend against the last-place Marlins in Miami -- or a loss from second-place Cleveland, will remove all suspense and clinch Detroit's third straight division crown.

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It's not a cause for celebration just yet, but it's close. As the Tigers were protecting their lead in the middle innings Tuesday, they were keeping track of the White Sox and Indians in Cleveland, where an Indians loss would have given them a chance to clinch the division outright.

Victor Martinez usually spends time in the clubhouse between at-bats as the designated hitter. On Tuesday, as the White Sox rallied in the ninth, he was the designated score checker.

"Victor came down and said, 'Hey, [Dayan] Viciedo hit a bomb,'" Max Scherzer said. "It was 3-3, and then we heard [Alejandro] De Aza hit a home run. And we were all like, 'Hey, we can scoreboard watch. We know what's going on.'

"We were thinking we could clinch tonight. I was getting ready to be able to pitch with a hangover. But, obviously, we were able to come up and see [Jason] Giambi hit a walk-off [home run]. It's good. We don't want the Indians' help. We want to do it ourselves."

Tigers relievers were watching the scoreboard from the bullpen deep in left-center.

"Everybody was watching it, especially two outs, man at second base," closer Joaquin Benoit said. "Whoever was hitting, I don't know who it was, was just taking a long time. Then somehow the 5 came out [on the board] and it's like, 'Oh, come on, White Sox.' But, we can't be looking at the White Sox. We have to take care of business."

Eventually, fellow reliever Jose Alvarez told Benoit it was Giambi who hit the walk.

"What? He needs to retire," Benoit said.

The Tigers are clearly a team with loftier goals than a return to the postseason, but they couldn't get back to the World Series without qualifying for the playoffs first. The lack of celebration in the Tigers clubhouse reflected it. It was just like any other victory, except that it set up a very special victory to come.

"I think our focus is winning the division," Justin Verlander said Monday. "It has been since Day 1 of the season. I don't think you're going to see us coming in here popping bottles celebrating to clinch a playoff spot. Our goal is to win a division, and we haven't been able to get there yet."

Their manager's approach reflected that. He has declined to talk about postseason rosters and pitching orders until they clinched a spot. He still wasn't talking about it after Tuesday's win.

"Well, I guess that's OK," Jim Leyland said. "We're not celebrating because we haven't done what we want to do. I'm happy about it. I'm selfish a little bit in my own little way, because it's four times in the postseason in eight years [in Detroit], and I'm proud of that."

Winning the division hasn't been quite as easy as expected. Though they won 19 of their first 30 games to sprint out to an early division lead, they essentially played .500 ball for a two-month stretch from early May until the All-Star break. Add in a torrid first half from the Indians, and Detroit fell to second place for a couple of stretches, most recently July 2, and struggled to build a gap after that.

Even a sweep of their four-game division clash in Cleveland in August, part of a 12-game winning streak, didn't end up being the springboard many hoped toward putting the division away. While Detroit hovered 20-25 games over .500, the Indians kept pace and later slashed the gap as low as 4 1/2 games on Sept. 9. Detroit has gone 9-3 since, which hasn't re-opened the gap but has held off the Tribe long enough to run down the number of games left to make up ground.

Unless the Tigers lose out and the Indians win the rest of the way, including a tiebreaker, the Tigers will take the division.

"It's very possible the Indians could run the table," Leyland said. "We've got to win another game somehow."

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.

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