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DET@OAK: Valverde gets Willingham to clinch division

OAKLAND -- Doug Fister was a good pitcher on a last-place team for most of the season before the Tigers targeted him at the Trade Deadline. He was at the heart of Friday's win that clinched the American League Central title, and in the middle of the celebration that followed it.

Wilson Betemit was a utility man who had outlived his role on the Royals before the Tigers traded for him in July. His go-ahead RBI triple stood up in Detroit's 3-1 win over the A's.

Don Kelly was part of the 2009 Tigers team that suffered heartbreak at the hands of the Twins. He scored the go-ahead run in the tiebreaker that year, only to see the lead vanish. He scored a key insurance run Friday night that ended up being the final tally.

Ramon Santiago was part of the 2003 Tigers team that lost 119 games, and his was the run that got the Tigers going against Oakland, continuing the key role he has played for at least a month at second base.

They all played their parts in the run that brought the Tigers to the cusp of their first division title since 1987, and they all had their hands in Friday's clincher. So did many more in a game capped by Jose Valverde's 45th save in as many chances. That made it all the sweeter for manager Jim Leyland, who teared up talking about it in his office while his players celebrated as a group down the hall.

"That's why you coach a team," Leyland said. "I think, to me, this is so good, because Fister was a pickup, but this is something that Donnie Kelly will never forget. That's what makes it special to me. Here's a guy that a lot of people don't really know about. And to come up like he did tonight, this goes in a heckuva memory bank for him.

"That's worth its weight in gold. That's why you play them all."

With their magic number at one, the Tigers needed to either win Friday night or have the Indians lose in Minnesota. They were going to get it at some point, but considering how all they needed was a win to wrap it up two years ago, getting that last victory was going to be special.

After Josh Willingham's homer to straightaway center pulled the A's ahead leading off the bottom of the second inning, it was all Tigers from there.

Once Tiger nemesis David DeJesus followed Willingham's homer with a single, Fister recovered with some help. Jhonny Peralta ranged deep into the hole at shortstop and rifled a throw to first to retire Cliff Pennington for the first of 17 straight outs recorded by Fister (9-13).

Just two Athletics in that stretch got a ball out of the infield against Fister, whose career-best fifth straight win ranked among the sweetest. Less than two months after he was a Mariners starter with the lowest run support among AL starters, he was a division champion. He was conscious of how close he was to the latter when he was on the mound.

"Definitely a world of emotions out there, trying to stay kind of composed and under control, still having a job to do," Fister said. "That's the main focus. Luckily tonight it was able to be done. It was a team effort. Offense came out and put together a lot of good at-bats and battled, and then the defense really picked everybody up. That's what it's all about."

Fister's five wins over his last six starts included two gems against the Indians. His eight innings of three-hit ball Friday eliminated Cleveland from the division chase.

"He certainly met the challenge tonight," Leyland said. "He's been fantastic for us. When you talk about a clinching game, you can't ask for any more of a performance than he gave us tonight. I mean, that's almost spotless. That's pretty impressive."

Fister's offense made sure he didn't trail for long. Santiago's triple leading off the third inning set the table for the top of the order to drive him in. After A's starter Trevor Cahill struck out Austin Jackson, up came Kelly, who's made many of his contributions recently as a defensive replacement, but started Friday.

Kelly's ground ball through the right side tied it. His fifth-inning sacrifice bunt moved two runners into scoring position before Cahill escaped, but once Cahill fell behind on a 2-0 count to him in the seventh, he pounced on a hanging sinker and drove it deep to right field for his fifth home run.

"This is the perfect example of how this team has won," Kelly said. "You had the two big hits. Fister, the new guy, goes eight. ... Everybody steps up and then you you've got Papa Grande at the back end closing it out. It's an amazing feeling. It's a fun night."

Valverde, as he has been for more than half of the Tigers' wins this year, was the exclamation point. He has been more and more animated in recent saves, and this seemed set to be his biggest celebration of all. But when Willingham grounded to third for the final out, he went to his catcher, Alex Avila, and gave him a big hug. Then the dugout emptied.

Nearly a quarter-century of frustration in the standings among Tigers fans poured out with it.

"It's an unbelievable feeling," Fister said. "A great group of guys to be around, a great group of guys to fight tooth and nail with. This is what we're living for, this is what we're playing for. Every drop of sweat, every drop of blood, tear, whatever, is what it's all about right now."

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