Detroit — This is where the Tigers always expected to be, at the brink of big possibilities, champagne on ice. It's not exactly how they expected to get here, but as they head into the final weekend of the season, the pieces (and the stars) might be aligning.
None of it matters unless the most troublesome piece, the bullpen, does its job, so this could be a crucial turn. The Tigers beat the Twins 4-2 Thursday night thanks to the standard slugging prowess of Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera, plus this timely twist: dominance from the bullpen and a clutch effort from Joe Nathan.
Already assured of at least a wild-card spot, the Tigers have a fourth straight Central Division title directly in the crosshairs of their imaginary binoculars, and can wrap it up tonight against the Twins. Their magic number sits at two, so they'd also need the Royals to lose to the White Sox, but if the clinching doesn't happen tonight, it'll happen soon enough.
The Tigers didn't necessarily expect to scrap to the final weekend, but no one should take any playoff berth for granted. This is what Brad Ausmus envisioned the past month or so, and he hopes it's more than a glimmer of what could've been. Nathan closed out the Twins with a perfect ninth inning, almost literally, throwing eight pitches (all strikes) and striking out two. Joba Chamberlain worked a 1-2-3 eighth and Joakim Soria a 1-2-3 seventh.
The Tigers are riding their workhorse starting pitchers hard, and their hitting stars are scorching. But the most important sign right now was the nine-up, nine-down effort by the Soria-Chamberlain-Nathan gauntlet. If that plan finally falls into place — and stays in place — the Tigers will be much closer to a championship-worthy team.
"It's all about timing and how you're playing come playoff time," Nathan said. "We've had a pretty good roller-coaster ride, but I think this clubhouse has stuck together and stayed positive. Sometimes during the course of a long season, it seems like there'll never be a finish line. Now that we can see it and know what we have to do, everybody's energy definitely is a lot higher."
Nine up, nine down
Nathan had the advantage of facing the bottom of the Twins' order, while Soria took care of the top. But at least for now, this quells the noise for a closer switch, as Soria continues to get comfortable with his new team.
Ausmus has gambled heavily on Nathan, hoping for this type of payback. It was Nathan's 34th save but only his second clean outing in his last nine appearances. His slider was nasty, and the Tigers are hoping the 39-year-old is finding more and more as the season gets later and later.
"All three of those guys did an outstanding job, threw strikes, quick innings, very efficient," Ausmus said. "Really, that's how you want to line it up. Joe was attacking the hitters, an excellent outing."
Nathan was brought here for these situations, and while the fan pressure (and opposing hitters) rocked him early in the season, he seems tougher and more determined because of it. Ask him what it'd mean to be spraying champagne tonight, and he unleashes a weary smile.
"It's exciting when you come to the park and you got a chance to do something special in front of the fans," Nathan said. "I'm most pleased with just being able to stay positive through what has been one of my tougher seasons, just being able to keep my head above water and keep my mental approach as consistent as I can. I know my stuff's not overpowering or anything, so I gotta mix my pitches up pretty well."
In the moment
If he's right, Nathan has four pitches to mix up, and the savvy to do it. He also has gained the respect of teammates, who have heard the boos and the calls for Soria and watched Nathan grind away.
"It's like everything, he's had some ups and downs, the whole team has had ups and downs," Martinez said. "Nobody's going to go through a whole season without struggling a bit. He's been able to stay really tough mentally."
Max Scherzer needed every last pitch from the bullpen as he battled through six innings, striking out nine and throwing 116 pitches. He was workmanlike, with some control issues, and bumped his record to 18-5.
These are the big nights now and the Tigers know it, and are determined to savor it. About 20 minutes after their victory, they took a break from the heat of the pennant race to gather around the big-screen TVs in the clubhouse and watch Derek Jeter's final at-bat in Yankee Stadium. It was a memorable walk-off hit that left Tigers players cheering, then silently staring at the screens as the scene unfolded.
It was a spine-shivering moment, the type of moment the Tigers are hunting, and finally starting to feel.