KANSAS CITY — The Tigers’ roller-coaster season led them to town with three chances to wrap up their second straight American League Central title. They only needed one, and they roughed up Royals nemesis Bruce Chen to do it.
What looked like another pitching duel between Chen and the Tigers broke open when Miguel Cabrera’s AL-leading 44th home run of the year — part of his four-hit game — ignited a five-run sixth inning. The other end of the pitching duel, Rick Porcello, earned his first win since Aug. 7, and the Tigers secured a return trip to the postseason with a 6-3 win Monday night at Kauffman Stadium.
Thus, a month since being swept in Kansas City, two weeks after losing in Chicago to fall three games behind the White Sox, and eight days after missing a chance to take over the division by getting swept by the Twins, the Tigers completed their late-season surge to become the first AL team this year to wrap up a division title. They’re the first Tigers team with back-to-back postseason berths since Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer led Detroit to a pair of World Series in 1934-35.
“It’s great, man. We got it,” Cabrera said. “This feels awesome. We’ve got to give credit to the White Sox, Kansas City, everybody, because it was a good race, unbelievable race. We’re happy. We’re proud, too, because it was a lot of pressure. Everybody said we weren’t going to make it. We did. It’s unbelievable.”
The Tigers have no idea yet who they’ll face, but they know they’ll start at home to open the AL Division Series on Saturday and Sunday at Comerica Park.
Chen was strong through the game’s first four innings, allowing just a pair of singles. And, after striking out Delmon Young to start the fifth, Chen had retired 12 of the first 14 hitters. But Jhonny Peralta snapped a scoreless tie by smoking the first pitch he saw into the Royals’ bullpen for a solo home run.
Chen allowed three consecutive singles from there but somehow escaped damage. The following frame, though, Cabrera took a sixth-inning sinker and lined it into the right-field bullpen for home run No. 44 and RBI No. 137. The third baseman finished 4-for-5 and upped his AL-leading batting average to .329. With two games left, his bid for baseball’s first batting Triple Crown in 45 years is the one bit of suspense left for Detroit. He’ll go into Tuesday with not just a lead, but a cushion in batting average, home runs and RBIs.
Prince Fielder, who also finished with four hits, followed Cabrera’s blast with a double, which went to the wall after Royals center fielder David Lough couldn’t make a diving catch. After a flyout, Lough then dropped a Peralta fly ball, allowing Fielder to score. Andy Dirks singled, and Royals manager Ned Yost made the odd decision to intentionally walk rookie Avisail Garcia and let Chen face Gerald Laird. The Detroit catcher picked up a base hit an inning earlier and went 2-for-3 against Chen last week in Detroit.
Laird worked a 3-1 count before lining a bases-clearing double into the left-field corner and bumping the Detroit lead to 6-0, breaking the game wide open.
“I just wanted to have a good at-bat,” Laird said. “Chen had been working me pretty tough all night, and I just wanted to make sure he got a pitch up in the zone. He kept cutting me in, and I was able to lay off some tough pitches. And then finally I got a fastball up in the zone that I was looking for, and I just didn’t miss it. A guy like that, who’s crafty like that, when he gives you something to hit, you can’t miss it. I was able to put good wood on it, and it found a hole.”
Laird’s three RBIs were the most he’s picked up in a single game since Aug. 3, 2008, against the Blue Jays. And, with three being the final margin of victory, the hit couldn’t have been any bigger.
“It was great,” Laird said. “You want to end it as quick as you can because you know Chicago won [11-0 over the Indians] tonight. You didn’t want to give that young, good club over there [Royals] any momentum and have them sweep us like they did already. We want to come out and get a lead for our pitching staff. It just feels really good. For them to walk [Garcia] and to get a chance to be the one to get a big hit, that’s what you play this game for.”
It was also a great night for Porcello, who won for the 10th time this season and first time in nine starts. His string of brief outings continued, as he lasted just 5 1/3, but he allowed just one run, the fewest since July 21 against the White Sox.
Porcello made his exit after surrendering a solo home run to Alex Gordon to leadoff the bottom of the sixth. The Royals scored another two runs off the Tigers’ bullpen, but Jose Valverde pitched a scoreless ninth inning for his 35th save of the season.
“On a personal level, it felt really good, just because I wanted to contribute,” Porcello said. “I knew we were going to do it. I just wanted to help out. Obviously, my last couple starts haven’t ended the way I wanted to, so tonight was a good finish to the regular season. I’m just happy for everybody around us. I just love all the guys on the team and it’s just a great feeling to share this with them and the city of Detroit.”
The division title is the Tigers’ third since winning their last World Series in 1984.
“That’s what baseball’s all about: races,” Laird said. “And Chicago battled us to the end. They’ve got a good ballclub over there. We knew they weren’t going to go away. They got up three games about a week-and-a-half ago, but we didn’t panic. We just played our game, and we got some help from other teams and were able to play good baseball.”
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck’s Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. Vinnie Duber is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.