MINNEAPOLIS — Torii Hunter couldn’t help but peek at the out-of-town scoreboard at Target Field, glancing toward the LED board in right-center field. When Cleveland trailed Chicago by a run in the bottom of the ninth, the Tigers outfielder felt his team had a chance to clinch the American League Central on Tuesday night with a win over Minnesota.
Not long after, the score in Cleveland changed. The Indians were walk-off winners thanks to a home run by the ageless wonder Jason Giambi. That meant the best Detroit could do Tuesday was earn a playoff berth by guaranteeing a wild card spot, which it did with a 4-2 win over the Minnesota Twins.
The champagne would have to wait at least one more night.
“I just looked back and I saw 5-4,” Hunter said of Cleveland’s win over the White Sox. “I was like, ‘Wow, that sucks.’ “
The Tigers still celebrated a playoff berth Tuesday, but there was no champagne to be sprayed. The only sign of celebration was the loud music blaring from the visitors’ clubhouse, something not uncommon after any regular-season win. Even as closer Joaquin Benoit closed out the game in the ninth inning, Detroit’s postgame handshakes were subdued.
This veteran Tigers made one thing clear: They still have business to attend to.
“We’ve got to win another game. That’s the way I look at it,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “We’re not celebrating because we haven’t done what we want to do.”
After losing the series opener to Minnesota on a walk-off hit in the 11th inning Monday, Detroit took care of its end of the bargain Tuesday thanks to three home runs and a solid outing from starter Doug Fister. Victor Martinez and Omar Infante went back-to-back to lead off the fourth inning against Twins starter Scott Diamond, and center fielder Austin Jackson blasted a two-run homer later in the inning to spot Fister four runs.
That was all the right-hander needed against a struggling Minnesota club. Fister struck out seven and allowed two runs on eight hits through 6-1/3 innings of work before handing the ball over to the bullpen. Four Detroit relievers combined to pitch 2-2/3 scoreless innings with seven total strikeouts.
“Guys came out to play tonight, and that’s what we want to see,” said Fister, who improved to 14-9 with the win. “We’re coming down the stretch, and every game matters. It’s team baseball, and that’s where we want to be.”
Before the game was over, the Tigers knew of Giambi’s heroics in Cleveland and were well aware that the division crown would not yet be up for grabs. Detroit leads the Indians by 4-1/2 games with five games to play, meaning Cleveland has no margin for error.
For the Tigers, all it will take is one more win and they’ll win their third straight American League Central title. They’re hoping that will come Wednesday night with their ace, Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer, on the mound in search of his 21st win of the season.
“That’s the main goal,” Hunter said of winning the division. “We want to get that win tomorrow. That’s our task tomorrow. We’re going to come out ready to play and try to get that win. We want to clinch. That’s the one thing we want to do. Tomorrow, trust me, we’re going to come out full force.”
The Tigers were the odds-on favorite to win the AL Central this year, and they’re ever so close to doing so in the final week of the season. But Cleveland has gone 16-6 so far in September and hasn’t made things easy on Detroit down the stretch. The Indians still hold one of the two wild card spots, thanks to Giambi’s late-game heroics and have now made the Tigers work to earn the division crown.
That didn’t surprise anyone in Detroit’s champagne-free clubhouse Tuesday night.
“Cleveland had another dramatic win. They’re not going to go away,” Leyland said. “The way they’ve been going, it’s possible they could run the table. We’ve got to win another game.”