October 2, 2009 at 2:52 pm

John Niyo

Tigers still in good shape, but we can never be sure

Tigers starter Nate Robertson gave up nine hits and three runs in six innings. He also struck out two. (Robin Buckson/The Detroit News)

Detroit

You wouldn't think twice about the Twins if you hadn't seen this before.

You'd shrug and do the math and put two (games up) and three (to play) together and come up with the obvious answer: The Tigers will win the American League Central.

Won't they?

Odds are, they will, one of these days.

But recent history -- not to mention Thursday's division-clenching loss at Comerica Park, capped off by a bizarre game of bean ball -- reminds us that odd things happen on the way to a sure thing for the Tigers.

Thursday's 8-3 loss was just the latest chapter, with five errors -- four by the Twins, the best fielding team in the majors -- along with three hit batters, two players ejected and one irrational home plate umpire. (Angel Hernandez, by the way, once ejected a guest singer of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" at Wrigley Field. And no, I'm not joking.)

Nate Robertson, the Tigers starting pitcher, called it "kind of a strange game." And strange as it might sound to some, Robertson did his part to keep the Tigers in it, allowing three earned runs in six innings Thursday before a sellout crowd of 40,533 at Comerica Park.

I'd call it an "anxious" crowd, but is there any other kind in Detroit these days? Admit it, Tigers fans: You're starting to have flashbacks, aren't you?

In 2006, the Tigers had at least a share of the division lead from May 15 until the final game of the regular season. That's when they blew a 6-0 lead against the last-place Kansas City Royals and lost their fifth in a row -- 10-8, in extra innings -- to stumble into the wild-card spot. The Twins, who'd trailed by 10 games on Aug. 7, won the division by beating the Chicago White Sox that day at the Metrodome.

Think positive

This year, the Tigers have been in first place since May 10, and their division lead stood at seven games less than a month ago. And if you thought Wednesday night's 7-2 loss would be the end of the Twins, you thought wrong.

Sort of the way Jim Leyland did when he rested Placido Polanco and gave Ramon Santiago the start at second base Thursday. Santiago was 6-for-12 in his career against starter Scott Baker, but he went 0-for-5 in this loss, leaving five men on base.

"We can't take those guys lightly," the Tigers' Marcus Thames said. "It's gonna be a dogfight to the finish."

Asked about drawing off memories of the '06 finish Thursday, Robertson started talking about the Tigers' memorable playoff run to the World Series that October. But when I interrupted and reminded him of the late-September swoon, he shook it off like a bad pitch call.

"Oh, we don't think about that," Robertson said. "Because you know what? Nothing slipped away. We got to the playoffs, and that's your goal. We got to the playoffs. We didn't look at it as something slippin' away. And that's our goal this year."

"So, yeah," he added, smiling, "we draw off the good stuff, not the bad stuff."

Controlling their destiny

As well they should, since the Tigers, who'll finish with three against the Chicago White Sox, still control their own destiny, such that it is.

Today, it's Edwin Jackson against Jake Peavy, who silenced the Tigers' oft-quiet bats a week ago. Saturday, it's Alfredo Figaro against Freddy Garcia, who's 15-5 lifetime against Detroit. Sunday, it's ace Justin Verlander against John Danks, who pitched a complete game in his last outing.

A win Thursday would've clinched the team's first division crown in 22 years. A lone win today -- or Saturday or Sunday, for that matter -- only guarantees a one-game playoff Tuesday night at the Metrodome, if the Twins somehow manage to sweep Kansas City this weekend in Minneapolis.

"We've just got to win two out of three, basically, and we'll be all right," said catcher Gerald Laird, who got tossed along with Leyland in the ninth Thursday. "We're gonna face three pretty good pitchers. But if we play good baseball, we'll be in here celebrating."

The Twins, obviously, have only the slimmest margin for error. But I think it's safe to say that feeling better be mutual for the Tigers.

"They split -- they needed to do a little more than that," reliever Bobby Seay said after giving up two hits and a walk to the three batters he faced Thursday.

But, he added quickly, "We did, too."

john.niyo@detnews.com">john.niyo@detnews.com (313) 982-3810

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