Niyo: Fired-up Tigers look to cap season on high note

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — It sounded like a playoff game, with the sun-splashed crowd of 36,810 at Comerica Park hanging on every pitch of every at-bat in the late innings.

It felt like one, too, with tempers flaring, All-Stars glaring, and everyone in the ballpark caring just a little bit more about a Wednesday matinee.

This might've been a getaway game for the White Sox, the last in a long regular season. But for the Tigers, this was something much more meaningful, a friendly reminder that their annual October appointment with the playoffs is just around the corner.

Wednesday's 6-1 victory put them on the precipice, still holding the division lead over the Royals in the American League Central. And Seattle's loss in Toronto later sealed Detroit's fourth consecutive postseason berth — a franchise record.

"Everybody wants to make it to the playoffs, obviously," said Justin Verlander, who was terrific in this one, outdueling Chris Sale. "But you never want to settle for a wild card, or just squeaking in. You want to win the division. And that's the goal here. I don't think anybody's gonna be overly excited. … There's still four games to play."

And several more after that, they hope, with even higher stakes.

"It's a different sensation, a different feeling," Verlander agreed, when asked to describe what life is like in the middle of this pennant race. "We play a lot of regular-season games, and the intensity's not the same as this. You can't replicate it."

As sneak previews go, this one did have plenty to offer, from stolen bases to accusations of stolen signs, sacrifice flies to a suicide squeeze. And for a welcome change, when the bullpen emptied in the sixth inning with the Tigers trailing by a run, it was just to mingle, as benches cleared following a bizarre showdown between Sale and the Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez.

Mostly, though, there was the steely visage of Verlander, the former MVP who endured a frustrating spring and summer following offseason surgery. Statistically speaking, this has been the worst season of his nine-year major league career, struggling to find a consistent form and his once-overpowering velocity while allowing an AL-worst 104 earned runs in 32 starts.

Dialing it up

But just as he did last fall, he appears to be finding another gear just in time for the postseason. And what Ausmus saw on the mound Wednesday looked a lot like what he'd seen last week in an impressive outing in Kansas City.

"He had laser focus," Ausmus said after watching Verlander work his way out of a couple jams and finish with just one run allowed on seven hits — and no walks — in eight innings. "He knew this was a big game for us, and he seems to dial it up."

Sale was dialed in himself, right up until the leading Cy Young contender turned this game into his own private false-flag operation, apparently accusing Martinez of stealing signs with the help of an operative using binoculars in the outfield seats.

It was a curious sight when the 25-year-old lefty doffed his cap toward right field after striking out Martinez to end the third inning. Then, after he drilled Martinez with a 93-mph fastball on the first pitch of his next at-bat in the sixth, Sale pointed again to the outfield, barking at the Tigers slugger as the benches cleared.

It was ex-teammate Avisail Garcia who finally explained what it was Sale was accusing him of following the beaning. Martinez's response: "You've got to be kidding me."

Bemused, thankfully

Ausmus failed to find much humor in it, calling the whole conspiracy theory "ridiculous" and "ludicrous." He also called it "weak" on Sale's part to drill Martinez — Sale denied it was intentional — without any real fear of retaliation, knowing the Tigers can't afford a suspension at this point in the season.

"If they injure Victor there, and we're in the playoff hunt, that's bad news," said Ausmus, showing a rare flash of anger in his postgame news conference. "I mean, that just can't happen."

But it did, and luckily for the Tigers, Martinez came away both unharmed and bemused, in part because he came home to score the tying run. J.D. Martinez smacked a double to left after order was restored, and Nick Castellanos drove in Martinez with a sac fly. The Tigers then rocked the White Sox bullpen for five runs in the seventh and eighth — "He woke the whole team up," VMart laughed — with Ian Kinsler providing perhaps the best highlight, mocking Sale by pretending to look through binoculars after his RBI double.

"Just having a little fun," he explained.

But they can see it clearly now, no doubt. And the real fun is only beginning.