09/17/11 4:09 AM ET
Path traveled to title is uncharted for Tigers
After years of falling short, club claims first division crown since '87
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
Yes, it's been that long. It just feels like they've been there recently because they've come so close. The way they pulled away the last few weeks, they didn't give anyone a chance to think back to those close calls again.
"This one means a little more, because we won the division," Magglio Ordonez said on Friday night, after the Tigers defeated the A's, 3-1, to clinch the American League Central. "Because this team hasn't won the division since 1987. It's been so long."
For all the wins the Tigers have racked up over the last six years, starting with their surprise run to the World Series in 2006, they hadn't punctuated it with a division crown. They had become known more for their September swoons than their celebrations.
The Tigers' trip to the Fall Classic came on a coach-class ticket as the AL Wild Card, their fallback once the Minnesota Twins beat them out for the AL Central title on the last day of the regular season. They had the division lead in 2007 as late as August before the Indians overtook them and pulled away, making an MVP-caliber season from Ordonez a secondary effort. And nobody will soon forget the one-game tiebreaker Detroit lost two years ago after holding a three-game lead with four games to play.
When the Tigers lost the tiebreaker that year, Miguel Cabrera sat in the clubhouse, his back hunched over, and cried openly. He felt like he had cost the team the division, a feeling more rooted in emotion than fact.
As the Tigers celebrated on Friday night, spraying champagne around the front half of the visiting clubhouse at Oakland Coliseum, Cabrera sat away from the crowd on the opposite side, watching it all as he puffed on a cigar and drank from a bottle of water. He had a look of pure contentment.
"I have four years right now in Detroit," he said. "Finally, we win the division. We're here for this, man, to win. You have to give a lot of thanks to our owner, to our general manager. They put a lot of great guys here together. We finally made it man."
The way the Tigers surged to this title made up for some of the lost time.
"I'll say one thing: You can't say we've backed into this one," manager Jim Leyland joked Thursday after his team swept the White Sox for the second time in as many weeks.
The champagne they were able to pop Friday night doesn't erase all those memories. But as anticlimactic as the Tigers' 12-game winning streak made the division race, the drought made it just as sweet as if they had barely pulled it out. Only the Expos/Nationals franchise and the Royals have gone longer without a division crown. The Marlins have won two World Series in the last 15 years, including in 1997 under Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski, but they came won both of them out of the Wild Card spot; Florida hasn't won the NL East since it began play in 1993.
Considering the Tigers went 13 years between winning seasons before their breakout year in 2006, that division drought shouldn't be surprising. But considering the success they've had since, including a division lead in July or later in five of the last six years, it's surprising that they hadn't held the top spot at the end.
The way they pulled away at the end, though, requires reminding that they were in a close race this year until fairly recently.
A month ago, the Tigers held a three-game lead, which was halved two days later. They've gone 23-5 since then.
Detroit swept a three-game series from the Indians at Comerica Park that weekend before taking three out of four from Tampa Bay in an excruciatingly close series of pitching duels. The Tigers haven't looked back since.
Once they swept the White Sox and Indians in consecutive series around Labor Day weekend, the rout was on.
"I think when we swept the White Sox and Clevleand, we had all the pieces together," Ordonez said.
Said Cabrera: "I always keep saying if you want to win the division, you have to play teams hard in your division."
As Leyland sat in his office, he was thinking further back than that, all the way to the end of April. Detroit came out of Cleveland in early May having been swept in three games that turned late. A day later, the Tigers were eight games behind the Indians in the division race, and facing questions whether they could make up that kind of deficit.
Leyland, meanwhile, was facing questions about his managerial future.
"We were seven games behind at one point," Leyland said, "and a lot of people weren't really talking about us at all. To me, it's amazing that we were seven games behind, and now we're 13 1/2 games up. I mean, that's pretty impressive.
"But they deserve it. They worked hard. They stuck together. They're special moments that you can't put a price tag on, and you just enjoy them."