KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There could have been some infighting when the Detroit Tigers were languishing below .500 midway through the season, or even when they trailed the Chicago White Sox deep into September.
This was the team, after all, that won the AL Central last year, and was only supposed to get better with the signing of Prince Fielder. But the lofty expectations out of spring training had been long forgotten by everyone outside the clubhouse, the season so often close to being written off.
Then the White Sox started to falter, the Tigers finally started to play defense, and all the pieces came together for a joyous ride that ended in a raucous celebration Monday night.
The Tigers, paced by MVP front-runner Miguel Cabrera, beat the Kansas City Royals 6-3 to clinch back-to-back division titles for the first time since the 1934-35 seasons.
“It was a rocky road, it was a tough season, but in this business, you have to be able to take some hits,” Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. “This isn’t a place for the faint-hearted, hell, we took a lot of punches, a lot of them justified, some of them maybe not, but hey, we can take a punch.”
They’re just as likely to come out swinging, too.
Cabrera had four hits on the night, including a homer during a decisive five-run sixth inning, to prop up his chances of becoming the first Triple Crown winner since 1967.
Gerald Laird added a bases-loaded double, Rick Porcello (10-12) pitched shutout ball into the sixth inning and Jhonny Peralta went deep off Bruce Chen (11-14) to give the Tigers a big lead.
After hanging over the dugout railing the entire ninth inning, they streamed onto the field behind the pitchers’ mound to celebrate their division title the moment Jose Valverde got Alcides Escobar to ground out to shortstop with a runner on second for his 35th save in 40 chances.
“We always knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and the guys handled it great,” Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said. “This is the first step. We want to go a couple more, too.”
The Tigers were even mindful of their victory celebration, choosing Fre Brut — an alcohol-removed sparkling wine — in deference to Cabrera, who’s had alcohol abuse problems.
“It feels really good,” Fielder said. “I mean, it wasn’t easy, but we got it done.”
The Tigers (87-73) will have the worst record among AL division champions, which means they’ll open the playoffs Saturday at home against the division winner with the second-best mark.
Not that when and where matters much to Leyland’s bunch.
They’re just glad to be back in the playoffs.
“You’ve got to take your hat off to them. They’re the champs,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “They’ve got the starting pitching, the power, a great bullpen. They’ve got a chance to go deep.”
It hasn’t just been Cabrera, either. Justin Verlander is closing in another Cy Young Award, right-hander Anibal Sanchez has been terrific down the stretch, and Fielder has delivered everything that Detroit had hoped for when they signed him, including four more hits Monday night.
“You get that kind of momentum, usually it ends up very good,” said team owner Mike Ilitch, who has spent a lot of money to chase the Tigers’ first World Series title since 1984.
The Tigers clung to a 1-0 lead, provided by Peralta’s homer, until their big sixth inning.
Cabrera broke a tie with the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton for the major league lead in homers with his 44th, a solo shot to right, and two fielding mistakes by David Lough in center led to another run.
Laird’s bases-loaded double knocked Chen from the game, and effectively knocked the White Sox out of the playoffs, though they didn’t do much to help themselves down the stretch.
Chicago beat the Indians 11-0 earlier in the night for just its third win in 13 games.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have won seven of their last eight as they surged to the division crown, including five straight against the Royals, who have dropped eight of their last nine.
Porcello kept the Royals off the scoreboard until the sixth, when Alex Gordon’s homer to right field finally gave Kansas City some life. Leyland wasted no time lifting his right-hander, who’d done enough to end a string of six straight losses and pick up his first victory in nine starts.
Cabrera had singles in the fourth, seventh and ninth in addition to his homer in the sixth, pushing his AL-leading batting average to .329, ahead of the Angels’ Mike Trout and the Twins’ Joe Mauer. Cabrera also moved his RBI total to 137, by far the best in the majors.
Cabrera was only part of the party Monday night, though, slapping backs and exchanging high-fives with the rest of his teammates as Detroit locked up its place in the postseason.
He could be the center of the celebration when the regular season ends Wednesday night.
“I don’t know what else to say,” Leyland said. “If he’s not the MVP then there’s no such thing.”