DETROIT (AP) – Brad Penny stood in the Detroit clubhouse after another victory and surveyed what was left of the race in the American League Central.
“The sooner we can clinch this thing, the better,” the veteran right-hander said. “We’re playing as good as anybody in baseball right now – and now’s the time to be doing that.”
Penny didn’t seem concerned about jinxing anything last week when he talked openly about wrapping up a division championship. The way the Tigers are playing, it’s hard to blame him for his straightforward attitude.
After spending much of the summer in a tight playoff chase, Detroit has left the rest of the division behind thanks to a torrid three-week stretch that has the Tigers on the verge of their first division title since 1987.
Detroit enters Monday night’s game at Chicago on a nine-game winning streak – and with a 10 1/2-game lead over the second-place White Sox. Earlier this season, the Tigers would occasionally check out their AL Central foes on television in the clubhouse. Now, scoreboard watching is going out of style in Detroit.
“There’s one goal that everyone should have in here, and that’s just winning tomorrow,” third baseman Brandon Inge said. “You win tomorrow, and move on to the next day. That’s the only goal. If you think about it, it does not matter what everyone else is doing. It doesn’t matter. We’re concentrating on what we can do.”
The Tigers led the division by 1 1/2 games over Cleveland on Aug. 19. Since that day, they’ve gone 19-4, including two three-game sweeps of the Indians and another against the White Sox. Detroit’s magic number to clinch the division is seven.
“That’s what they planned out of spring training, I’m sure – to get a lead and run with it,” said Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire, whose Twins went 4-14 against Detroit this year. “They’re a very good baseball team.”
For a while, it seemed the Tigers were merely the best of a mediocre group in their division, but at 84-62, Detroit now has a better record than AL West-leading Texas, and players from all over the roster are contributing.
Justin Verlander is a leading candidate for the Cy Young Award, but right-hander Doug Fister has been just as dominant of late. Fister, acquired July 30 from Seattle, has allowed only three earned runs in his last 36 2-3 innings.
Slugger Miguel Cabrera anchors the offense, but Alex Avila has been about as valuable, blossoming into one of the game’s top catchers. Free agent addition Victor Martinez is hitting .323, and shortstop Jhonny Peralta has 18 home runs.
Even Inge, who hit so badly he was sent down to the minors in July, has contributed since coming back, hitting a game-winning home run Saturday against the Twins. Ramon Santiago, who looked like nothing more than a utility infielder for much of the season, has an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .969 since Aug. 14.
Detroit has gone 35-19 since the All-Star break, quieting concerns about the team’s penchant for second-half slides. General manager Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland entered this season in the final year of their contracts, but both received extensions Aug. 8, shortly before the Tigers began opening a substantial lead in the division.
Detroit has won its share of close games. Center fielder Austin Jackson threw a runner out at the plate to preserve an 8-7 win over Cleveland on Aug. 21, and on Sept. 3, the Tigers rallied from a seven-run deficit to beat the White Sox 9-8 on a homer by Cabrera.
The next night, as if to prove they weren’t just relying on late-inning fortune, the Tigers beat Chicago 18-2 to finish that three-game sweep.
“This is the best team I’ve probably ever played on, and the attitude is what makes us so good,” Inge said. “Obviously, we have good, quality guys on paper, but it’s the attitude, kind of the never-say-die attitude – we’re never going to lay down for another team – that’s what’s probably the most important thing.”
Inge played on Detroit’s 2006 team that went to the World Series as a wild card. The Tigers haven’t made the playoffs since then. They came excruciatingly close in 2009, when they had a three-game lead with four games remaining, but Minnesota caught up and then handed Detroit a heartbreaking loss in a one-game playoff for the division title.
Detroit’s last division championship came 24 years ago, when the Tigers swept a season-ending three-game set against Toronto at Tiger Stadium to edge the Blue Jays by two games in the AL East.
This year’s Tigers appear ready to claim their title without that sort of drama.
“If we keep winning, no one can catch us,” Inge said. “That’s a fact.”
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