Tigers' work continues despite crown
AL Central champs will not coast during season's closing days
OAKLAND -- Somewhere in the midst of the Tigers' longest winning streak since 1934, manager Jim Leyland's catch phrase took hold. Now that they've clinched their first division title in 24 years, they're still hearing it.
"Pedal to the metal," reliever Daniel Schlereth recalled Friday night in the midst of their celebration. "Skip said that after every game."
Brandon Inge was listening, too. To him, it was a key to clinching so soon.
"Skip's been saying, 'Keep your foot on the pedal, on the gas pedal and keep going at the end,' " Inge said. "That's honestly what everyone's done."
That's what the Tigers plan to continue doing, because to them, their playoff chase isn't done yet.
"Because you move on, it'll be our most important stretch of the season, to maintain the edge, to figure things out," Leyland said Friday.
Realistically, Detroit had long since run away with the American League Central, having put the White Sox and Indians behind by double digits in the standings, with a 12-game winning streak. But in the midst of that stretch, the Tigers propelled themselves not only into the postseason, but in a position to grab home-field advantage for the Division Series.
Just a couple of weeks ago, that seemed hard to fathom. Not only are the Rangers the reigning AL champions, they're one of the more balanced teams in baseball. They average more runs per game than the Tigers and possess a lower ERA from their pitching staff. Texas has also won three out of every five games since the All-Star break. However, the Rangers plodded along to a degree in early September, and the Tigers swept passed them.
Since then, that race has quietly become a sprint for that second seed. While the Tigers' winning streak ended in Oakland on Thursday night, the Rangers entered the weekend with four straight wins thanks to a three-game sweep of the Indians. That sweep helped put the Tigers in a position to clinch sooner, but Detroit might have actually been better off had the Tribe won a game or two.
The Tigers' ticket to the postseason was very secure; their second seed is not. Detroit's win Friday night, combined with Texas' loss, stretched the gap to two games with 11 games to play. And with the division wrapped up, that seed is clearly in their sights.
"It's not like we won the World Series tonight. We won the Central Division," Leyland said. "But we're going into play into the postseason. ... First of all, we're going to continue to play because we'd like to get home-field advantage. And then we have some other things that we need to sit down and really make some important decisions.
"But we're going to continue to play, and we're going to continue to play hard."
Texas visits Seattle this weekend and Oakland next week before hosting the Mariners and Angels to close out the season. It's a fairly similar schedule to what the Tigers face in terms of caliber of opponent until the very end. While the Tigers aren't scheduled to play against a team with a winning record until the postseason, the Rangers get an Angels team still with a chance to make a race out of the AL West.
Whoever seizes the second seed will open the postseason at home Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, against the AL Wild Card assuming it's the second-place team in the AL East. The Red Sox currently have a four-game lead on that spot, having finally cooled off the Rays Friday night behind Josh Beckett. The Tigers lost five of six games to Boston this season, but three of the losses were one-run decisions. Additionally, all of the games were in May, before Detroit climbed over .500 for good.
If the Tigers finish behind Texas, and the Yankees hold onto the AL's top seed, Detroit would face a familiar first-round foe. They had to beat the Yankees in the Division Series in 2006 on their way to the World Series. They won the regular-season series this year, mainly from three straight wins at Comerica Park to finish off a four-game series in early May.
Whether it's the Red Sox or Yankees, they'll be facing a different Tigers squad than they met early in the season. Doug Fister's arrival from Seattle has given the rotation another front-line starter and given opposing hitters ample frustration. Delmon Young's trade from Minnesota provided a power-hitting weapon in front of MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera.
If they continue to play like they have recently, they're a tough matchup for either the Yankees or Red Sox. Yet, that's the other challenge -- trying to stretch this caliber of play into the postseason.
The Tigers acknowledged that even during their 12-game winning streak. Now, they're staring at the gap, 11 games between them and the postseason berth they've already earned.
It isn't simply going to be a victory lap.
"We have a long way to go right now," Miguel Cabrera said. "We have to just keep playing hard. We have to keep winning and try to be ready for the playoffs."
After that, it gets interesting. Max Scherzer, who makes his next start Wednesday at Kansas City, would be on turn to start Game 2 of a Division Series on his regular rest if the Tigers rotation order doesn't change. Fister, on the other hand, would need to be shuffled or skipped to start Game 2, though he could start Game 3.
Those questions should become clearer next week, after the Tigers have organizational meetings in Kansas City. For now, they're going to enjoy this.