September 21, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Only one big goal counts for the Tigers

Detroit — Another night, another packed ballpark, another gaudy milestone. The Tigers keep piling up the numbers, while doggedly pursuing the last prize that truly matters.

Sometimes these long pursuits turn joyless, almost monotonous, milestones melding into millstones. The Tigers are determined to not let that happen, to play as if the weight isn’t there, even though it is. This was Max Scherzer’s turn to sigh and smile and hit the big number, notching his 20th victory in the Tigers’ 12-5 squashing of the White Sox.

Scherzer is 20-3 and probably will win the Cy Young, and teammate Anibal Sanchez also will get consideration. The Tigers’ MVP streak could hit three straight, although injuries have slowed Miguel Cabrera’s pace. The achievements and plaudits are remarkable as the Tigers (90-64) churn toward a third straight division title, as 39,643 sat though the drizzle Friday night at Comerica Park to push the season attendance to the brink of 3 million.

And what, exactly, does it all mean? Plenty, but certainly not everything. This is the dichotomy for the Tigers these days — much to celebrate, much more to do. It was Scherzer’s fifth attempt at No. 20 and he wanted it badly, not as badly as something else.

“I’ll appreciate it more once the season ends,” Scherzer said. “When you play on this team, your goal is to win and win in the playoffs, and try to get to the World Series and win the World Series. You don’t get caught up in your personal achievements, no one here does. That’s what makes it beautiful — even when I have a moment like this, the thought of winning something bigger is more important to me.”

What about something bigger like the Cy Young? Scherzer didn’t hesitate.

“That’s after the World Series,” he said. “We’re in the process of trying to win the division, that’s the most exciting thing.”

Dream job

As the accomplishments broaden, the focus narrows. Some days, Jim Leyland sits in his office and can’t believe all he’s seen, and has no desire to see it end. He’s 68 and in his eighth season here, and as the Tigers nudged closer to another playoff berth, he could sneak a moment to reflect.

“Really, this is one of the dream jobs in baseball,” Leyland said before the game. “If you want to manage and you don’t like this place, there’s something wrong with you. I’m not being corny or mushy, I’m just telling you the facts. The place is packed, you got a beautiful stadium, you got a great owner, you got a smart general manager, you got good guys. What’s not to like?”

Leyland won’t take about his future until after the season, his contract year by year now. But it’s clear he loves it here and wants to stay, and for all the fan bluster about his strategy, he remains the perfectly steady influence on a team with so many high-profile stars.

Everyone knows the World Series-or-bust mentality, more pronounced as the years pass. The Tigers gathered for the team photo Friday, although owner Mike Ilitch wasn’t in attendance. I don’t think the 84-year-old owner needed a hall pass to skip it, but his absence from the annual event was a rarity, and perhaps a reminder of the urgency.

“The only thing we’d like to do yet, obviously, is get the total big prize,” Leyland said. “We got a couple nice prizes but we’d like to get the big one. That’s easier said than done. There are 30 teams, so if everybody that didn’t win the World Series is a failure — I hate to think that’s true.”

Plenty of star power

Leyland is not minimizing the ultimate goal, so don’t misinterpret it. But there’s no sense piling pressure on a team that has lugged it — along with a healthy payroll — for years.

Since reaching the World Series in 2006, the Tigers have contended again and again with plenty of flash, but disappointing finishes. Justin Verlander won the MVP and Cy Young two years ago. Cabrera won the MVP and Triple Crown last season. Six Tigers were on the All-Star team and free-agents readily sign, from Victor Martinez to Prince Fielder to Torii Hunter.

Ilitch and Dave Dombrowski have put together something big, and Leyland is an important part of keeping it together. It’s not as simple as filling out lineups and writing checks, either. Three of the Tigers’ top four starters — Scherzer, Sanchez, Doug Fister — arrived via trade.

No one should take anything for granted, and the Tigers certainly aren’t. But for it to be a crowning success, all the hefty numbers have to add up to a world championship.

That’s why Scherzer was genuinely happy about becoming the major league’s first 20-game winner, but far from giddy. He probably was a bit relieved after missing on four previous attempts.

“I don’t know if Max was feeling any pressure, but I couldn’t be happier for him,” Leyland said. “I think he deserves (the Cy Young) very much, but I leave it to the guys that vote.”

There will be time later to debate votes and awards and who deserves what. Those mean something, and for Scherzer, they should mean a lot. He has had a spectacular season. But there are no illusions for these Tigers, and no distracting from the final pursuit.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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Pitcher Max Scherzer was the latest Tiger to rack up a milestone -- his first career 20-win season -- in the team's 12-5 victory over the White Sox Friday. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News