Tigers lean on ace with season at stake

Tigers lean on ace in finale

DETROIT -- The weight on the mighty right shoulder of Justin Verlander just grew a lot heavier. But if the Tigers have to ride the fate of their season on one game Sunday, it's fitting they ride it with him.

"One hundred sixty-one games ... it comes down to one game," catcher Gerald Laird said.

Whether it's a masterpiece or a grind-out game, whether they're uptight or loose, the Tigers just need to come out on the winning end.

With Detroit and Minnesota now tied atop the American League Central, just about everything rides on Sunday -- no magic numbers, no what-if scenarios, no talk of when a Division Series would begin, no rah-rah speeches.

"These guys have been in. Some of these guys have gone to the World Series," manager Jim Leyland said. "If there was some magic talk that I thought would help, I'd give them a magic talk. The Detroit Tigers know that to continue the season, they have to most likely win [Sunday]."

If both the Tigers and Twins win or they both lose, they'll give the Metrodome one more game Tuesday at 5 p.m. ET for a one-game playoff. If one team wins Sunday and the other loses, that squad will claim the AL Central and meet the Yankees in the AL Division Series.

After Friday night's loss, Leyland went around the Tigers' clubhouse and told his players to assume they wouldn't get any help, that the Twins would win Saturday and Sunday. Now that Detroit lost sole command of the division, the players met on their own after Saturday's loss and talked much about the same thing.

"Do you want to play on," Laird said, "or do you want to go home? I'm sure everyone's going to come in ready to play tomorrow, and I expect to win."

Five days ago, Verlander's eight innings helped the Tigers avoid falling into a first-place tie with the Twins. Now, the teams are even, and Detroit needs Verlander to ensure that its season doesn't end Sunday.

The tuneup for the postseason that the Tigers hoped to give their ace has now become potentially the game that knocks them out of the postseason if they can't pull it out. To add a little spice to the mix, it's far from an easy matchup against a White Sox team playing with nothing to lose and playing with a history of success against Verlander until this year, when he has tossed two gems against them.

A Tigers offense that was starting to produce in the clutch has scored one run in its past 19 innings heading into a matchup with John Danks, who has nine quality starts in his past 10 innings, including a complete-game three-hitter.

If there was ever a time for a No. 1 starter, this is it. And as stunned as the Tigers feel about their precarious situation, it's Verlander that gives them reason for confidence.

"He's our ace," third baseman Brandon Inge said. "That's what you have him for."

He was there Tuesday night, when he lasted eight innings and 129 pitches to thwart a Twins comeback and keep Minnesota from tying the division that night.

Verlander has shown a way of making his team play great behind him when he gets rolling. Right now, the Tigers are looking for a win, however it comes.

"We need to win," shortstop Adam Everett said. "It doesn't matter how we get it. It doesn't matter how ugly or how pretty it is. We just need to win."

It's a historic turn. Three days ago, the Tigers had a chance to finish off the AL Central if they could beat the Twins at Comerica Park. Now, one more loss, and they could be finished.

"I hope we get tight, to be honest with you," Leyland said. "We've done everything we can to make them aware of the [race], to embrace it, enjoy it. For whatever reason, it hasn't seemed to work. Maybe if they tense up a little bit, maybe they'll be better. I don't know."

No team in Major League history has led a division or league by three games with four games to play and not won. Nor has any team that led its division or league continuously since at least May 10, as the Tigers have done, lost it in the final week, according to STATS.

But once the Twins beat Royals ace Zack Greinke on Saturday afternoon and the Tigers fell to the White Sox at night, the momentum shifted. As if the White Sox haven't proven a challenging enough foe for him over the years, Verlander now arguably has to pitch against history. But obviously, he can't think that way.

Nor can the Tigers feel like just a couple of runs will be enough for Verlander to carry.

"You can't come in here with that attitude," Laird said. "I figure we've got to come in here and jump on the board quick. I feel when we get going and we score first, we have big innings early. If we can get Verlander a three-, four-, five-run lead and take the pressure off a little bit, I think it'll be fine. But we have to come in here ready to swing the bats and get off to a good start, give Verlander that early cushion."

Laird went so far as to say he still feels they're in the driver's seat. They control their own fate, and they have their best pitcher going. They can still win out and take the crown, but Sunday now is the first step.

Pitching matchup
CWS: LHP John Danks (13-10, 3.69 ERA)
During Monday's 6-1 victory over the Indians at Progressive Field, Danks accomplished two personal goals. The left-hander hurled his first complete game as a professional, and he set a single-season high in victories at 13 -- a total that figures to lead the White Sox in 2009. Danks will make one more start in search of another goal, which is reaching 200 innings pitched in 2009. Danks enters the game against the Tigers needing 4 2/3 innings to reach that target for the first time in his three-year career. Danks is one of just three pitchers in the history of the White Sox to make 25 starts in each of his first three seasons with the team. He has a 0-1 record against Detroit this season.

DET: RHP Justin Verlander (18-9, 3.45 ERA)
Verlander missed out on a quality start Tuesday night against the Twins, but his eight innings and four runs allowed held onto what was once a five-run lead.

Tidbits
Magglio Ordonez has an 11-game hitting streak, during which he's batting .450 (18-for-40). His .416 average since Sept. 1 leads all AL players. He's also 11-for-20 lifetime against Danks, with three doubles, a homer and six RBIs. ... Carlos Guillen is 4-for-9 off Danks. ... The six stolen bases allowed by the Tigers on Saturday marked their highest total since the Angels swiped six on August 17, 2003. It's tied for the highest total against the Tigers since at least 1954. ... Placido Polanco's eighth-inning RBI broke a string of 27 consecutive scoreless innings from White Sox pitchers.

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Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.