DAVE SKRETTA,AP Sports Writer
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Miguel Cabrera had four hits, including a homer during a five-run sixth inning, and the Detroit Tigers held off the Kansas City Royals 6-3 Monday night to clinch the AL Central title.
Gerald Laird added a bases-loaded double, Rick Porcello (10-12) pitched shutout ball into the sixth inning and Jhonny Peralta went deep off Bruce Chen (11-14) to help Detroit reach the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since 1934-35.
After hanging over the dugout railing the entire ninth inning, the Tigers streamed onto the field and behind the pitchers’ mound to celebrate their accomplishment the moment Jose Valverde got Alcides Escobar to ground out to shortstop with a runner on second for his 35th save in 40 chances.
The Tigers (87-73) will have the worst record among AL division champions, which means they’ll open the playoffs Saturday at home against the division winner with the second-best mark.
Not that when and where matters much to Jim Leyland’s bunch.
They’re just glad to be back in the playoffs.
After winning the division by 15 games last season, and signing Prince Fielder in the offseason, the Tigers entered spring training with lofty expectations. But they got off to a surprisingly slow start and languished below .500 in early July. Detroit was still well behind Chicago early last month.
The White Sox faltered, though, and the Tigers took advantage.
Now, with Cabrera making a run at baseball’s first Triple Crown since 1967 and Justin Verlander in contention for a second straight Cy Young Award, Detroit is arguably the hottest team in the majors.
Right-hander Anibal Sanchez has been terrific down the stretch, Fielder and Austin Jackson are having big years at the plate, and the shoddy fielding that could have forced the Tigers to sit home in October has improved to the point that they’ll be pressing on into the postseason.
The improved fielding was never more evident than in the fifth inning Monday night, when the Royals had loaded the bases. Escobar hit a hard grounder just to the side of second base, and Omar Infante made a nice glove-flip to Peralta covering the bag to end the inning.
The play allowed the Tigers to cling to a 1-0 lead, provided by Peralta’s homer in the fifth inning, until they could tack on five more runs in the sixth.
Cabrera broke a tie with the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton for the major league lead in homers with his 44th, a solo shot to right, and two fielding mistakes by David Lough in center led to another run.
Laird’s bases-loaded double knocked Chen from the game, and effectively knocked the White Sox out of the playoffs, though they didn’t do much to help themselves down the stretch.
Chicago beat the Indians 11-0 Monday night for just its third win in 13 games.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have won seven of their last eight as they surged to the division crown, including five straight against the Royals, who have dropped eight of their last nine.
Porcello kept the Royals off the scoreboard until the sixth, when Alex Gordon’s homer to right field finally gave Kansas City some life. Leyland wasted no time lifting his right-hander, who’d done enough to end a string of six straight losses and pick up his first victory in nine starts.
Cabrera had singles in the fourth, seventh and ninth in addition to his homer in the sixth, pushing his AL-leading average to .329, ahead of the Angels’ Mike Trout and the Twins’ Joe Mauer. Cabrera also moved his astonishing RBI total to 137, by far the best in the majors.
Cabrera was only part of the party Monday night, though, slapping backs and exchanging high-fives with the rest of his teammates as Detroit locked up its place in the postseason.
He could be the center of the celebration when the regular season ends Wednesday night.
NOTES: Fielder also had four hits in the game. … The Royals celebrated the 20th anniversary of George Brett’s 3,000th hit, which occurred on Sept. 30, 1992. … RHP Doug Fister will start for Detroit on Tuesday night against RHP Jeremy Guthrie of the Royals. … 1B Eric Hosmer could miss the final two games of the season with a strained right shoulder, Royals manager Ned Yost said.
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