Now, after Saturday's 5-1 loss to the White Sox dropped Detroit into a first-place tie with Minnesota, the Tigers have to regroup in a hurry.
"This is a team," manager Jim Leyland said. "We all make our contributions, and none of us are doing enough."
As former Detroit pitcher Freddy Garcia retired one Tigers hitter after another on his way to seven-plus innings, holding his ex-mates scoreless until the eighth, the balance of power in the division seemed to shift. No longer did it feel like a delayed celebration, though the Tigers could still end up winning their first division title since 1987 with a win Sunday and a Twins loss. The feeling now is of a team that has led or shared the lead atop the AL Central, but whose title hopes very much need a spark.
"Concerned? Yeah," said shortstop Adam Everett, who scored on Placido Polanco's RBI single for Detroit's first run in 17 innings. "We're not scoring runs. We need to win. Bottom line is, if you win, it doesn't matter how many runs you score. Our main objective is to win."
If both the Tigers and Twins win Sunday, or if 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, the winner will take the AL Central and meet the Yankees in the AL Division Series.
It marks the first time since July 24 that the Tigers haven't had first place to themselves. They've at least shared the division lead every day since May 10; no team has led a division or league that early in the season and lost it in the final week. For that matter, no team has led a division or league by three games with four games to play and not won.
The struggles that have led the Tigers to three straight losses aren't new; they're actually many of the same woes they've had for much of the season, especially offensively. After plating 13 runs over a two-game span against the Twins, they've scored just four runs in the three defeats since, though they've had chances to drive in runs early in each of those games.
Detroit has droughts like this before. This one, however, came at the worst possible time, and it includes star cleanup hitter Miguel Cabrera. It has left players and coaches alike struggling to explain why.
"We just haven't hit," Leyland said. "It's been a little bit of an issue all year."
Detroit's best chance to change that Saturday came in the third inning after Garcia (3-4) struck out four in a five-batter span. A one-out walk to Curtis Granderson and an infield single for Polanco set up the heart of the Tigers' order against a pitcher they know well.
Garcia fell behind on hot-hitting Magglio Ordonez, and got a popout to second on a 2-1 pitch. After putting Cabrera in a two-strike count, Garcia escaped with a groundout to third. He rolled after that, retiring 14 of 15, until three straight hits plated Everett and brought up Ordonez and Cabrera again as the potential tying run in a 4-1 game.
Ordonez worked the count full against reliever Tony Pena, then hit a hard shot to the left side that shortstop Alexei Ramirez snared. He nearly doubled off Granderson before he beat Brent Lillibridge back to the base.
"I feel like we hit a lot of balls hard tonight," Everett said. "We hit a lot of balls hard right at guys."
A pitch later, and a Cabrera grounder to short, that chance was gone with an inning-ending double play.
Cabrera went 0-for-4 without getting a ball out of the infield, and is now 0-for-11 since his first-inning single Thursday. He seemingly had a bruise on the left side of his face that showed up on television cameras Saturday, but he was not available for comment after the game. Head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said through a team spokesperson that he didn't see Cabrera.
Given the struggles offensively, even a gem of an outing probably would've gone for naught. The Tigers did not get that in a spot start from Alfredo Figaro (2-2), whose first start in three months ended after four outs, two walks and three hits to put the White Sox on top with Carlos Quentin's second-inning homer and load the bases for another tally.
Leyland, who said before the game that he'd change pitchers quickly if he sensed trouble, went to his bullpen from there.
"There wasn't much margin for error," Leyland said.
Alex Rios' blooper off Armando Galarraga an inning later fell out of the reach of right fielder Ordonez, who slid and missed it for a double that drove in Quentin and completed a two-out rally. Another two-out hit, a soft liner to right off Ryan Perry, drove in Paul Konerko for a 4-0 lead in the fifth.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.