Tigers clinch AL Central, uncork champagne-soaked celebration

MINNEAPOLIS — As his team sprayed champagne just feet away to celebrate yet another American League Central title, Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland fought back tears.

As a baseball lifer, Leyland has had this type of success before. In fact, Wednesday marked the third straight division crown for his Tigers, capped by a 1-0 win over Minnesota at Target Field. But those previous titles didn’t make this celebration any less sweet — or any less emotional.

“I just don’t think people realize how hard it is to win,” said Leyland, doing his best to remain stoic. “People had such high expectations. I talked about that and said, ‘Don’t get caught up in the expectations. Get caught up in how you’re going to live up to the expectations. That’s the most important thing.’ And I think we did that.”

Leyland was soon greeted by Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, who gave the manager a big hug as Leyland continued to fight back the tears. Minutes later, Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter ran from the clubhouse on a mission. He darted across the hall to the visiting manager’s office to bring out the man who led this group to its 93rd win and third consecutive AL Central title.

“I got Skip!” Hunter shouted before the Tigers began to spray their manager with champagne.

After a time of reflection in his office, it was time for a brief moment of jubilation for Leyland as his players surrounded him. Leyland didn’t stay in the clubhouse long, retreating back to his office shortly thereafter. But Hunter’s gesture to include the skipper in the party was a sign of just how much these players respect Leyland and how much he’s meant to them all year.

“Skip is awesome,” Hunter said. “He lets us go out and play the game the right way. He knows we’re going to play the game the right way. He has a lot of faith in us.”

As instrumental as Leyland was this season, Tigers ace Max Scherzer has been one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle. The right-hander earned his 21st win of the season Wednesday by limiting the Twins to just two hits through seven innings. Although he walked a season-high six batters, Scherzer struck out 10 and lowered his season ERA to 2.90, leaving a pretty good final impression on Cy Young voters.

Hunter said the Tigers dubbed Scherzer “Black Jack” after his 21st win. In a starting rotation full of many quality arms, Scherzer has no doubt been the leader.

But even on a night where he won his 21st game and put himself in great position to win the Cy Young, Scherzer refused to take all the credit.

“To have 21 wins means my team played so well this year, I pitched well, the defense played well. It’s just a culmination of our team playing together,” Scherzer said in the middle of the Tigers’ champagne-soaked clubhouse. “They did that every single time I pitched, and I’m glad I was always able to pitch consistently and give them a chance to win, because those guys always picked me up.”

The Tigers’ only run of the night came just minutes into Wednesday’s game. Center fielder Austin Jackson led off with a triple to the gap in right-center, and Hunter drove him in with a base hit a few pitches later.

With the way Scherzer was dealing Wednesday — as he has all season — one run proved to be enough. Detroit’s bullpen kept the struggling Twins at bay and Joaquin Benoit earned his 24th save of the year to clinch the division. The Tigers’ celebration on the field was rather subdued.

They were saving the good stuff for the visitors’ clubhouse.

“When you see us celebrating and we’re going crazy and having a great time, (it’s) because we’re brothers,” Hunter said. “We went through failures in the season. We went through good times in the season, and we did it together as a brotherhood. That’s why you see guys so happy when they’re popping champagne all around Major League Baseball because we did it. We did it together.”

Detroit was picked by nearly everyone to win the AL Central this year, and that’s what it did with Wednesday’s win. The Tigers clinched a playoff berth with a victory Tuesday, but winning the division was the biggest goal of the regular season.

Now that they’re postseason bound, the Tigers have another goal in their sights.

“This is just the beginning,” said Justin Verlander, who got no decision in the series opener Monday. “I feel like we have a team capable of winning the World Series. We’ve got a great pitching staff. We’ve got a great lineup. We’ve got all the pieces we need. It’s just a matter of going out there and doing it.”

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