Tigers' magical ride ends

Tigers' magical ride ends

MINNEAPOLIS -- History will say losing a three-game lead in the American League Central with four games to play was unprecedented heartbreak for the Tigers, as was losing a division it either led alone or shared since May 10. That sickening feeling in the Tigers' stomachs says losing a tiebreaker lead in extra innings feels worse.

"It's tough to swallow," reliever Zach Miner said.

After all the twists and turns of the past four weeks, the disappointments and the thrills, Detroit stood three outs away from its first division title since 1987. The Tigers lost its one-run lead, but the club still had a chance to pull ahead. Not until Alexi Casilla's 12th-inning single scored Carlos Gomez did the Tigers' division hopes finally die in a 6-5 tiebreaker loss to the Twins that will go down in baseball history for its own merit.

"We played our tails off. They played their tails off," left fielder Ryan Raburn said. "All in all, it was a great game, and I was glad I was a part of it. But it's just a heartbreaker, really."

With their hopes finally down to one night, having put themselves in that position with struggles down the stretch, the Tigers played one of their best games of the stretch run, if not the whole season. They just couldn't do enough to win.

As long as it went -- not just the game, but the race -- the sudden ending left the Tigers stunned. Miner could be seen in the dugout staring into space while the Twins celebrated. Miguel Cabrera broke down and cried when he tried to talk about the loss. There were very few eyes that weren't red.

"I can't believe it," said Brandon Inge, whose 10th-inning RBI double gave the Tigers their second and final lead. "We, obviously, put ourselves in that situation by having to come here to play this game. Minnesota, obviously, earned it by playing so well down the stretch to get in this position. But wow, what a game tonight was."

Manager Jim Leyland has had his share of late-inning drama on both ends, from Sid Bream's run in the 1992 National League Championship Series to Edgar Renteria's hit to win the 1997 World Series. Leyland called this one of the greatest games he had been involved in.

"I couldn't be prouder of our guys," he said. "I guess it's fitting to say that there was a loser in this game, because we lost the game, but it's hard for me to believe there was a loser in this game. Both teams played their hearts out. You can't ask for anything more than that as far as a manager's concerned. They left it all out on the field.

"So close, and so far away."

The Twins advance to face the Yankees on Wednesday night in the Bronx in the AL Division Series. The Tigers go home haunted one last time by the challenge of beating Minnesota in the Metrodome, where no Detroit lead seemed to be safe until the final out, and no final out seemed to be in sight.

It was tantalizingly close two different times for the Tigers, who had a 3-0 lead midway through the third inning thanks to Magglio Ordonez's RBI single and Cabrera's two-run homer, part of an explosive start for a slugger in a late-season skid and recent headlines. They had 20-year-old Rick Porcello throw another late-season gem in the most pressure-packed situation he has faced in his brief career.

Even after Jason Kubel's sixth-inning homer and Orlando Cabrera's go-ahead two-run shot an inning later, they forced extra innings with another clutch home run from Ordonez, his second in as many days.

They were the kinds of plays that the Tigers sorely needed down the stretch as their division lead slowly dwindled, and especially last week as it evaporated under three consecutive losses. On Tuesday, they kept the Tigers alive longer than many could've expected, and they set up the kind of drama that the actual postseason might find difficult to match.

After Inge -- his knee hurting the most it has all season -- arguably extended the season with a diving stop to rob Orlando Cabrera of a potential game-winning single, Inge's double into the left-field corner sent pinch-runner Don Kelly around to score with the go-ahead run in the 10th. But a leadoff liner from Michael Cuddyer that seemed set to fall in, instead skipped past Raburn in left field for a triple.

"I had a good read on it," Raburn said. "It just never came out of the lights."

Said Leyland: "He thought he had a shot to catch it. He went for it and he didn't get it. How can you complain about something like that?"

After a Brendan Harris intentional walk and a Matt Tolbert RBI single, Nick Punto's fly ball nearly sent the Twins to victory a few pitches later, but Raburn redeemed himself with a throw to the plate which nailed pinch-runner Casilla, sending this game longer.

"I'm telling you," Inge said, "no matter what we did, it just seemed like it wasn't meant to be." In the end, the Tigers' final inning might have served as a microcosm of their struggles this season. Miguel Cabrera's one-out walk and Don Kelly's single and an intentional walk to Raburn loaded the bases with nobody out, up came Inge needing a fly ball off Bobby Keppel to win it.

A first-pitch ball off his jersey that arguably was a hit-by-pitch instead was called a ball, but Inge still had a chance to drive in the run. He centered a 2-2 pitch up the middle that Punto fielded and made an acrobatic throw home for the forceout at the plate. Keppel then struck out Gerald Laird to end the threat.

"We had a lot of tough at-bats," Placido Polanco said of the game in general, "and then nothing. We couldn't get the big hit."

Finally, in Fernando Rodney's fourth inning of work, the Twins punched their postseason ticket. Gomez's leadoff single in the bottom of the inning started the final rally. Cuddyer's ground ball to third stayed just fair, moving Gomez to second as Inge threw over for the out at first. After an intentional walk to Delmon Young, Casilla slapped a grounder through the right side, sending Gomez home.

Just like that, the Tigers' season was over, much to their disbelief. But the final step in to their late-season fall was a fight that'll be remembered for better reasons than the games that led up to it.

"It's a tough pill to swallow, obviously," Leyland said, "but like I told my guys, there's not a manager alive that can complain about what they did today. They played their hearts out."

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