On the way home from Kansas City late Sunday evening, after winning the two games they ideally needed to swipe from the Royals in their weekend convention at Kauffman Stadium, it would have been easy to imagine Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and his staff putting together a division-clinching to-do list for this final week of the 2014 regular season.
The Tigers are 1½ games on top of the Royals with seven games to play. Those numbers should put into easy reach Detroit's fourth consecutive American League Central flag, all because the Tigers got it done at K.C. in winning impressively Friday night, winning luckily Saturday, while humanely leaving the Royals with a heartbeat following Sunday's 5-2 defeat that set up this wrap-up week of regular-season theater.
But as for that list Ausmus and his staff, in union with general manager Dave Dombrowski, might craft to ensure champagne spews inside the Tigers clubhouse at some point during two close-out series against the White Sox (beginning tonight at Comerica Park) and Twins, key points include:
Don't worry about the order of Detroit's starting rotation.
How a manager sets up his pitching for the postseason depends on how rapidly a team might or might not clinch this week. Because the Tigers likely would not play until Oct. 2, Ausmus should be able to choose as he pleases.
David Price, Max Scherzer, and, yes, Justin Verlander — if he follows up with a strong start this week — can be Detroit's first three division-series starters ahead of Rick Porcello, who has been off-key in September. Four starters. Five games (if required). That's the first step. Get your golden-boy starters to give you seven good innings and you've got a chance.
A bullpen shuffle is dangerously overdue.
Rearranging the bullpen won't be as easy for Ausmus but is more of an imperative. It was recommended last week the Tigers resist any commitments to roles or to diplomacy. They nearly booted Saturday's game when Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan finished the eighth and ninth innings. Joakim Soria, the best pitcher of the three, somehow was not used in either frame.
Soria needs to be the Tigers' new closer. Anibal Sanchez, who is about ready to rejoin the team, can then fortify their back-end bullpen. These moves, more than any strategies about how to deploy their starters, will make or break the Tigers' postseason.
Lean heavily on outfield defense as early as possible in any game.
This means getting Don Kelly into center field at every opportunity, with serious consideration of starting him against right-handers. That's how important defense will become in a five- or seven-game series. The Tigers are wobbly in their typical outfield alignment. Fans will scream, but Kelly can and should play more than he did during the regular season, with Rajai Davis inheriting back-end innings in left field from J.D. Martinez should the Tigers have any kind of a lead.
The Tigers will have enough offense on most days to survive. Relief pitching and defense are their deeper concerns And those issues will be compounded in the postseason should the Tigers not act preventively.
Be glad for all your catching.
Alex Avila's unsettling, lingering concussion issues have ripped at the Tigers, competitively and psychologically. He is a starting pitcher's best friend because of his intricate understanding of hitters and pitch-plans, which are skills no less important than his defense.
The Tigers are lucky to have backups: Bryan Holaday, James McCann, and, if they care to deploy him, Victor Martinez. Not every team has catching depth on Detroit's level. Avila's recurring head trauma is perhaps the most serious story on the Tigers roster.
The team won't play him unless doctors are of uniform agreement he can perform and not risk far more serious consequences than missing a few games. Competitively, the Tigers can survive if Avila no longer can play in 2014. Get him healthy for 2015 and be glad your roster is equipped for a long absence.
Begin enjoying yourselves.
The Tigers are in first place with what shaped up after the All-Star break as the second-toughest schedule of any contender. They have not played great. They are scary at more than a couple of spots. But they're a playoff team, at least marginally, and should confirm it this week with another division title secured.
Enjoy the champagne for a couple of hours — and then get to work reconstructing that bullpen.