Detroit Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge, left, is congratulated by teammate Placido Polanco after a diving catch of a line drive off the bat of Cleveland Indians' Johnny Peralta ended the game on Thursday at Progressive Field in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)
A year ago, when Metro Detroit and Michigan at large were dealing with a careening auto industry and an economy crashing against the rocks, Detroit's baseball team seemed to believe misery required company.
The Tigers were finishing last in the American League Central with a 74-88 record, which meant that Comerica Park's final game-dates were more like funereal farewells to the departed.
Next week will be different, very different.
Beginning tonight in Chicago, where the first-place Tigers open a three-game series against the White Sox, Detroit begins a 10-game rush to win the American League Central title and grab a playoff spot. Detroit's final seven regular-season games are set for Comerica Park next week against second-place Minnesota (four games, Monday-Thursday) and a grand finale, three-game series against Chicago. The Tigers increased their lead to 3 with Thursday's victory over the Indians.
Andy Schueneman, a public relations staffer from Grosse Pointe, is a Minnesota native and Twins fan who decided after moving to Metro Detroit in 2004 that he would co-adopt the Tigers, as would his children.
"My wife and I have a 4-year-old boy, Joseph, who has caught Tigers fever this year," Schueneman said. "He wakes up every morning and the first thing out of his mouth is: 'Did the Tigers win?'
"If I don't know the score, he can grab my BlackBerry and find the score on his own -- even though he can't read."
The Schuenemans have entered the online lottery (detroittigers.com) that could allow them a shot at buying playoff tickets. If the Tigers prevail, at least one game is guaranteed to be played in Detroit during the best-of-five divisional playoff series -- likely against the New York Yankees -- which precedes the best-of-seven American League Championship Series.
Lead has held for months
The Tigers have been in first place since May 10, although they have acted along the way like nervous tenants awaiting eviction. Their lead, which has never been more than seven games, and has seen them locked in a tie on seven dates (six in May, one in July) has nonetheless held up.
A team that has steadily swatted away the Twins and the White Sox, and that has hitched itself in 2009 to pitching and defense, those sturdy if not sexy bulwarks of baseball, has 10 more days and games to show that it was a playoff club all along.
In concert with manager Jim Leyland, Tigers players have been trying to keep their heads and words straight as the days dwindle.
"Swagger" is a quality Leyland has always cited as one of his favorite traits in quality baseball teams. But Leyland has been careful down the stretch, saying only that he wants his players "to enjoy" the one-of-a-kind drama and stakes that make September pennant races such rich theater.
Placido Polanco, the Tigers second baseman, came close to a Leyland-approved brush with bravado when he spoke this week about "pressure" and how the Tigers would handle it.
"I'll tell you what, everybody feels the pressure," he said of all baseball players fighting for a playoff spot. "But if you really think about it, they (the Twins and White Sox, the Tigers' principal playoff challengers) should have the pressure.
"For all of us, though, it's definitely exciting stuff."
Twins' enemy status rises
Fans have been slurping up the suspense, and likely will show it next week, particularly for the series against Minnesota. The Twins represent not only the Tigers' top-gun opponent for the division title, but they're the club that steadily has adopted an unofficial mantle as the team Detroit's fans Most Love To Hate.
Branding the Twins as the Tigers' arch-enemies is "fair and correct," said Greg Bowman, a WWJ 950 news anchor, and widely known Tigers rooter.
"It used to be the Yankees, but now we play them so rarely and with them being in the other division, the Twins are our chief rival."
The Tigers, fourth in the American League in attendance, should push past the 2.4 million mark next week -- and could go higher if the Oct. 2-4 games against the White Sox prove to be as critical as Leyland and others expect in a race he has said repeatedly will "go to the wire."
The Tigers are preparing for a box-office rush next week they hope will presage a long October playoff run.
They also will be diminishing some local distributor's champagne's reserves, not with anything secure in mind, but purely in anticipation that some bubbly might be needed for the team's first playoff celebration since 2006.
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