Thames' taters give Verlander 18th win
Win bittersweet as Indians clinch American League Central title
DETROIT -- Last year on almost the exact same date, the Tigers were joyously reflecting on their season and looking forward to making a playoff run.This season, even after their 7-2 win over the Royals on Sunday afternoon at Comerica Park, all the Tigers could do is look forward to next year and take the small positives from a campaign that will likely end next week. The Indians also won, 6-2, on Sunday, clinching the American League Central title, ending the slim hopes the Tigers had of catching the team that has tortured them throughout the year. "We got something going, but you can't be fickle enough to think that it lasts if you don't do a good enough job," manager Jim Leyland said. "We got something going and we got a chance to be good for a while, but that doesn't mean you're going to go to the postseason every year. That's just the way it is." Leyland wasn't critical of the Tigers upon the final realization that the postseason hopes are just about officially over; he was just stating the obvious truth about how hard it is to consistently advance to the postseason, especially in the AL Central. "It's special to win -- it's not very easy," Leyland said. "You're going to see Cleveland come back next year as the division champs. You're going to see Minnesota. This is not gonna get any easier -- this is the big leagues. We're in a loaded division." The Tigers already surpassed their September win total of 12 last season with their 13th win this month, but their recent three-game sweep at the hands of the Indians pretty much ensured there would be no postseason. Justin Verlander helped the Tigers clinch a playoff berth last year on Sept. 24 with a win over the Royals in Kansas City to put a halt to their poor September play. He beat the Royals again in a late September game on Sunday. But this year, his mood was a bit more subdued, despite setting another milestone in a year filled with achievements for the Tigers. Verlander became the first Tiger to win at least 18 games in a season since Bill Gullickson won 20 in 1991, but the freshest thing in his mind was his rough stretch of games in the second half. "I feel things have gone pretty well, but there were points in time I felt I could have gone better," Verlander said. "There was a stretch this year where I went three or four starts in a row and didn't pitch that well. Everybody's gonna go through a little slump, but the more you can lessen it and figure out what's going on and correct that -- I feel like this year, I didn't correct it as soon as I could have." The Tigers basically know it will be impossible to catch the Yankees for the AL playoff spot in the final six games, as New York reduced its magic number to clinch a playoff berth to two games. "If you look at it, we could have easily been 20 games back if we fell apart," Joel Zumaya said. "But we ended up in second and it's not where we wanna be, because it's second, but we got next year and we'll be back." Zumaya threw 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief against the Royals after missing most of the season with a finger injury. Zumaya's seemingly healthy return at the end of the season was one of the encouraging signs to take from Sundays game. Marcus Thames and Ryan Raburn delivered most of the offense after being relegated to bench duty after rosters expanded to 40 players on Sept. 1. Thames had the fourth multi-homer game of his career and drove in three runs after yielding the left-field position to Timo Perez for most of September. It was Thames' first homer since Aug. 26. "He needed that," Leyland said of Thames. Raburn also homered and drove in two runs in just his seventh start in the last 22 games. Rookie prospect Cameron Maybin made a diving catch in center field after struggling to adjust to the outfield during his brief late-season callup. Verlander continued to morph into a pitcher -- instead of just a thrower -- and certainly showed no signs of a sophomore slump after he hit the wall a bit toward the end of last season. "I don't have to have my best stuff to give us a chance to win," Verlander said. The season may end next week for the Tigers, but that doesn't mean they can't begin to think about next season. "It's gonna be a pause for about three months, but I guarantee you it will be fun again next year," Zumaya said. "It's just matter of people staying healthy." The third consecutive sellout crowd on Sunday, and 41st of the season for the Tigers, certainly hopes it will be fun again. Leyland seems to believe it will. "You gotta have a lot of things go right for you and they all did last year," Leyland said. "We didn't have as many go right for us this year, but we still had a lot of things that did. We've got an excellent team with an excellent group of fans and an excellent community. I mean, what more could you ask for? I wish we could have done a little better, but this particular year, we didn't."
Tim Kirby is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.