Wojnowski: What a relief for champion Tigers

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — After all the pitfalls and all the angst, it was the perfect way for the circle to close. In one more tidy, noisy package of tension, the Tigers ended their long trek to another division title, expending every last ounce of energy — and champagne — in the process.

It wasn't supposed to be this difficult, down to the final day, but now that it's over and the playoffs beckon, there's appreciation for the pain. There was Joe Nathan, the once-beleaguered closer, locking down the final three outs amid the din of "Let's Go, Joe!" chants. There was David Price, here barely two months, looking like the clutch pitcher the Tigers acquired for exactly this reason.

The Tigers beats the Twins, 3-0, Sunday to win the Central Division by one game over the charging Royals, launching a celebration from the field to the clubhouse to the stands. Finally, the expectations of the fans met the deeds of the team, and the roars from the sellout crowd of 40,501 were as loud as they've been all season.

The Tigers didn't back into the playoffs, but they didn't stroll in either. They'd lost the previous two nights to the Twins, 11-4 and 12-3, and the nervousness was growing — apparently everywhere but in Price's veins. The truth is, the Tigers are no worse for the wear, and might even be better for the fear. They'll face the Orioles in a five-game series starting Thursday in Baltimore, and they won't go in as underdogs.

"There aren't too many storybook seasons in this game," Ian Kinsler said. "Baseball's a game of adversity and we faced a ton of it this year. A battle-tested team is always better for it. To be able to put up with those things and to overcome them definitely makes us tougher. Now the goal is just to prove it."

The season was so long and arduous, the Tigers seemingly lost and found their closer, lost and found their entire bullpen, lost and found their star pitchers and hitters. To take the next step and win the franchise's first World Series since 1984, it requires savvy change along a steady course, and who were the key contributors in the final game? Newcomers Price, Nathan, Kinsler and Joba Chamberlain.

If you want the season's pain written on one face, it's Nathan's, and as he stood in a champagne puddle in the middle of the clubhouse, wearing a red Detroit firefighter's hat, the picture was priceless. As the bubbly streaked down his 39-year-old face, the symbolism was subtle — if Nathan could get through this, the Tigers could get through this.

"It hasn't been an easy road for anybody, and that's why you celebrate," said Nathan, who closed the Tigers' last two victories with perfect ninth innings. "I don't blame anybody (for his struggles). I don't blame the media, I don't blame the fans. I stunk the first two months, there's no hiding that. It was a challenging year, but I'm so happy to be where we are."

That's the team's sentiments in summation — happy to be where they are, however they got here. The Tigers joined the Cardinals as the only Major League teams to reach the past four postseasons, but it never gets old, or easy. Victor Martinez said this was the toughest of his four seasons here. The rookie manager, Brad Ausmus, said the title felt better than he even imagined, partly because of the missteps.

It's one bizarre circle, when you think about it. Relievers Nathan, Chamberlain and Joakim Soria are all here because of past playoff failures by the bullpen. Kinsler arrived in a trade for Prince Fielder, who faltered in the playoffs. The Tigers finished 90-72 but it took a home run and an RBI single by Kinsler to finally finish off the pesky Twins (70-92).

After the final out, the players leaped on each other near the pitcher's mound, but saved the big party for inside. It was loud and sticky, but it was far from the celebration they really crave.

Off to the side, catcher Alex Avila watched quietly, and wearily said he simply felt pride. His head has been so battered by foul balls and wayward bats, you wonder how he makes it. He was there again Sunday for a behind-the-plate view of an absolute gem by Price, who struck out eight and allowed only four hits in seven-plus innings.

With Price, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello, the Tigers still have a formidable starting foursome, which will make them a fashionable pick in the playoffs. Anibal Sanchez is recovered from a muscle pull and can bolster the bullpen, the troubled area that always gets the most scrutiny.

Expectations for the Tigers have been enormous, and prone to fluctuation. When they acquired Price at the end of July, a rise. When they trailed the Royals by three games in late-August, a dip. Along the way, Nathan had a regretful gripe with the fans that he profusely apologized for, and he wasn't the only one feeling the frustration.

"There's no secret, there's a lot of pressure on this team to win," Martinez said. "But you know what? We take it. We like to play under pressure. It was a lot of ups and downs, and we've just been able to stay together as a team."

It helps that Miguel Cabrera has gradually gotten healthier, although still bothered by a bad ankle. It helps that the middle of the batting order — Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez — has been phenomenal, and that veteran Torii Hunter has found his second, or third, or 30th wind.

The Tigers have flaws, obviously. They also have veteran players and an organization that hungers to win. Ausmus is young but GM Dave Dombrowski has been here, and all the pieces he added were for this time and this purpose. When Nathan was buckling early on, no one panicked and shuffled everything, an approach that will be further tested in the playoffs.

Ausmus wasn't interested in taking any credit, and as he watched his players spray champagne, his hair and uniform were still dry.

"I've been doused before, it doesn't bother me, but I want to let them celebrate," Ausmus said. "It seemed like we were always on the cusp of clinching, so it's kind of a release now. It's been a roller coaster, but ultimately they stayed the course, didn't get overwhelmed and got the job done."

When the players celebrated on the field earlier, they were enveloped by smoke from the game-ending, division-winning burst of fireworks, another fitting sign. The smoke eventually cleared, as it usually does, and revealed who they are, and who they might yet become.