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10/01/09 7:05 PM EST

Loss to Twins leaves clinch on hold

Tigers' magic number in AL Central remains at two

DETROIT -- The American League Central race isn't over yet. If anything, it became slightly more heated Thursday.

Though the trading of inside pitches and hit-by-pitches led to empty benches in the ninth inning, nobody threw any punches. It proved fitting, since the Tigers couldn't land the knockout blow they hoped to give the Twins.

Instead of a celebration, Detroit was fighting off any sense of a missed opportunity after an 8-3 loss to Minnesota cut the gap in the division back to two games. It's the same lead the Tigers had over the Twins going into the four-game series, only now with just three games to play.

"I felt like we did what we had to do," manager Jim Leyland said, "not what we wanted."

Any combination of two Tigers wins this weekend against the visiting White Sox or Twins losses at home to the Royals would clinch Detroit's first division crown since 1987.

Just one Tigers win and a Twins sweep would force a one-game playoff at the Metrodome early next week to determine which team advances to face the Yankees in the AL Division Series. If the Twins sweep Kansas City and the Tigers are swept, Minnesota would win the division title outright.

The Tigers see it as a division still in their hands. By contrast, a clinching win Thursday seemed further and further out of their grasp as the day continued.

"The players of the Twins came out today and kicked the fannies of the players of the Tigers," Leyland said. "Their manager and their players kicked me and the Tigers players today. They played the game right. They won the game. We turn the page."

Hopes of finishing the race contributed to a sellout crowd of 40,533, including more than 7,000 tickets sold Thursday to complete Detroit's first sellout since July 25. The vast majority of those were left silent in the third when back-to-back RBI singles from Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel's sacrifice fly put Nate Robertson and the Tigers down for the rest of the afternoon.

Robertson (2-3) didn't have the solid outing he enjoyed against the Twins a week and a half ago at the Metrodome, nor was it the rough exit he suffered against the White Sox last weekend. After an unearned run in the fourth inning, he retired nine in a row to get through six innings, salvage a quality start and keep it relatively close.

"I felt pretty good," Robertson told reporters afterward. "It was just the one inning."

Still, it wasn't enough for a win. With one or two key Tigers hits early, it might have been.

Marcus Thames' second-inning single and run scored was Detroit's only damage off Twins starter Scott Baker (15-9), but with three walks and five hits over five innings, it wasn't the only opportunity. Baker left runners at the corners by striking out Carlos Guillen in the opening inning, then walked Curtis Granderson to load the bases with two outs in the fourth.

Up came Ramon Santiago, whose 11-for-25 performance over his previous seven games helped earn him a start to rest Placido Polanco at second. He got a 1-0 fastball over the plate, but popped it almost straight up.

"That's the one," Santiago said. "I just missed it. It's baseball."

That's the way the day went, particularly for Santiago, who reached base on a Brendan Harris error to lead off the seventh and seemingly had taken second base on a Miguel Cabrera fly ball that Denard Span ran down in foul territory in right field.

Home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez, however, called Santiago out when the Twins appealed at first base, turning what was left of a late scoring chance into an inning-ending double play.

"I think when you have to call it with the naked eye, it's a lot more difficult than it is when you go down and watch a replay," said Leyland, rarely one to comment on calls. "That's in fairness to any umpire. Obviously, after watching it, it was a legitimate tag."

Santiago didn't need to see it.

"I was safe," he said. "I even got out [from the bag] late. Not even close. But he called me out, and I'm out."

The Twins, in turn, aren't out, not yet. They weren't heated over the tensions that followed, from Jose Mijares' pitch behind Adam Everett to Jeremy Bonderman's fastball off the back of Delmon Young's right knee. But they're heated over the chance they still have.

Much like they did for most of the summer, they're lingering. The Tigers can make it irrelevant by taking two of three over the White Sox to wrap up what would be their first division title since 1987.

Still, the way the Twins have hung around, it couldn't just be easy.

"I don't know if it's an opportunity lost," Everett said. "We just have to go out and win. That first game could've gone either way. They're a good team. You have to give them some credit, too."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.