Tigers pitcher Edwin Jackson sits in the dugout in the sixth inning. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
And now it gets nerve-wracking, if it wasn't already. Don't look now -- and don't look at the mess that unfolded Friday night -- but suddenly for the Tigers, it's getting dangerous.
For the second straight game, it was celebration aborted. For the second straight day, the mood turned from light to dour, and now the Tigers are about to face yet another test of their worthiness.
With another chance to seize command and plan the party, the Tigers were flat-out awful Friday night, from starting pitcher Edwin Jackson to their flailing hitters. The White Sox came in without a shot in the division race and slammed the Tigers 8-0, and now the lead is down to one, with two games left.
Minnesota was busy beating Kansas City, 10-7, keeping the pressure on, and I wonder if the Tigers finally are feeling it. They claim they aren't, and as long as the lead and the odds remain in their favor, they shouldn't.
But are they courting tension and trouble? Absolutely. They walked off the field to scattered boos, and headed straight toward the latest Most Important Game of the Year.
The Tigers send unheralded right-hander Alfredo Figaro, 25, to the mound tonight against the White Sox, still needing a victory and a Twins loss to clinch the A.L. Central title. Maybe the kid will be just loose enough to win a huge game, but if not, this wobbly march goes down to the final knee-rattling game on Sunday.
Figaro will be making only the third start of his major-league career, and his job will be simple: keep the Tigers in the game long enough for their bats to awaken (if their bats awaken).
"I think he's got a chance to pitch a pretty good game," manager Jim Leyland said. "I know he's gonna compete and he's not afraid, and that's a pretty good combination. But we still gotta score some runs."
That's both an understatement and a redundancy for a Tigers team that goes mystifyingly quiet at times. And you know the White Sox, defending division champs, have no intention of playing placid bystanders so their rivals can pop the corks. They used standout pitcher Jake Peavy in this one, and he allowed two measly hits in eight innings.
I asked Leyland if he was puzzled by the Tigers' meek response.
"To be honest, I've been a little puzzled all year why we haven't hit better," he said. "It's no secret, it's simple. We gotta get good at-bats, we gotta get some hits and run around the bases, and if we don't, we'll get out (butts) beat."
Leyland didn't get riled and neither did the players. He told the team after the game not to expect help, not to expect the Twins to lose. He said not to expect some fiery Knute Rockne speech, either. The Tigers are intent on exuding calm, even if their hearts are starting to palpitate.
If you're getting a little antsy at home too, I understand completely. But if you want to feel slightly better, consider this: The Tigers and Twins each have two games remaining, and of those four games, only one has to go the Tigers' way (a Detroit victory or a Minnesota loss) to at least secure a share of first place and force a one-game playoff.
Hey, that's the cheery side, and I'm sure it's little consolation for the 34,726 at Comerica Park on Friday. Jackson was rocked early, and when he walked Jermaine Dye with the bases loaded in the sixth inning, we heard the oddest noise in a pennant race -- boos.
Jackson has struggled for a while, and when the Tigers' pitching struggles, oh boy, they're in trouble. This has been the strangest pursuit of a post-season bid, a bizarre mix of tentativeness (from the fans), tautness (on a nightly basis) and inconsistency (from the Tigers). They've been in first place since May 10, built a lead as large as seven games, and yet somehow have been in control without really being in control.
For another day, there was a celebration pending, but it was hard to tell. The crowd wasn't a sellout, and to be honest, that was a surprise. The economy is one explanation for the empty seats, and it's legitimate. I won't shriek for people to spend their money, but it's almost as if fans are reluctant to believe a title is real, partly because the Tigers haven't seized it when given the chance.
They just split four games with the Twins, which was fine, but they sent a disappointed sellout crowd home Thursday with an 8-3 loss. And now they'll lean on a youngster who has spent most of his career in the minor leagues.
"I never feel nervous in my life about the games," Figaro said. "I don't think like, 'oh, it's a big game.' I know we need the game, so I feel more excited than anything."
All of a sudden, the Tigers desperately need some excitement. Whether it comes from an unheralded pitcher or a heralded hitter, doesn't matter, they need it now.
Amy Aul of Washington, Mich., left, with friends Sarah Niemi and Nathalie ... (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
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