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Detroit — Miguel Cabrera rounded first base, with no intention of going any further, hobbled as he is by that painful right ankle. But with Torii Hunter safely over to third, and Alex Gordon's throw sailing in from left field, Cabrera playfully adopted a threatening crouch, anyway, as if he just might try it.

He held the pose for effect, laughed and then said something to first baseman Eric Hosmer — few major-league players chatter in the field more than Cabrera does — before finally retreating to first base, content with his single.

That it was merely the second of eight hits in the third inning off Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie helped explain Monday's lopsided result, a 9-5 workday win that pulled the Tigers within a game of the Royals in the American League Central.

But what it suggested in terms of body language might've said something more, at least for those of us still searching for a sign — any sign — that'll make sense of this helter-skelter division race.

Frankly, I've just about given up, especially after watching Don Kelly searching for the baseball in Hunter's empty glove after their center-field collision in the seventh inning of Monday's game. The resulting inside-the-park homer for Lorenzo Cain brought to mind a scene from that Looney Tunes baseball short with Bugs Bunny and the Gas House Gorillas.

But with three weeks left in the season, and everything still up for grabs, here goes: The Tigers aren't going away quietly, and they're not backing down.

And if the Royals finally are playoff material, the three-time defending AL Central champs seem intent on making them prove it.

Season series edge

As Victor Martinez noted in the postgame clubhouse Monday evening, while some of his teammates rushed to get dressed and head over to Ford Field to catch the Lions game, "We've been here before."

Left unsaid was the other half of that declarative sentence: The Royals haven't. And these next few weeks, we may find out just how much that matters.

The Tigers, for all their obvious flaws, are operating from muscle memory here, while the notion of a pennant race is a distant memory for the Royals' franchise. Kansas City hasn't earned a postseason berth since 1985, and that's also the last time they even held a division lead in the month of September.

And while that's hardly the only difference between these two teams – the Royals rely on defense and their bullpen, while the Tigers are better off avoiding theirs many nights – it may prove to be the decisive one.

"Most of us in this locker room have been here and experienced games in September that mean this much, high-intensity games," said Justin Verlander, who earned the win Monday and seemed encouraged by the "life" he saw -- both from his pitches and his teammates. "That experience is extremely valuable when you get into these situations. And hopefully we can draw from that."

With Monday's win, the Tigers improved to 10-4 against Kansas City this season, with five head-to-head meetings left. A year ago, they needed a 15-4 series edge over Cleveland to hold on to the Central title. In 2011 and '12, they won 12 of 18 against their next-closest pursuer in the division.

And clearly, that history lesson is not lost on the Tigers.

"We're staring up at them in the standings, so this is our opportunity and we're trying to take advantage of it," manager Brad Ausmus said. "I think there was more energy today, and I think the concentration level was probably a tick higher as well. …

"Experience certainly helps, when you're in a pennant race or a postseason atmosphere. If you've been there before, you've taught yourself how to calm your nerves, how to focus on the game. You keep the adrenaline in check."

Making mistakes

If Kansas City didn't already understand that, Monday's loss was another jarring reminder.

The Royals came in having won five of their last six games, allowing one run or fewer in four of those wins. They also rank as one of the best defensive teams in baseball.

Yet they handed the Tigers a gift in the second inning when Hosmer, the reigning A.L. Gold Glove winner at first base, booted a routine grounder by weak-hitting shortstop Andrew Romine, then compounded his mistake by making another error on throw to Guthrie covering first.

Two runs scored on the play, and though the Tigers gave them right back in the top of the third, the stage was set for a shaky outing. And a brief one for Guthrie, who has allowed eight runs in each of his last two starts against Detroit.

"The Royals usually don't beat themselves," Ausmus said, when asked about Hosmer's errors. "So I wouldn't expect that to happen a lot in games with them. But when the opportunity comes, we take advantage of it."

Monday, they did exactly that. And tomorrow?

Well, said Martinez, flashing one of those intense looks we've come to expect from him, "There's no tomorrow. If we really want to do some damage, we better do it now."

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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