Miguel Cabrera had four hits, including a homer during a five-run sixth inning, and the Detroit Tigers held off the Kansas City Royals 6-3 Monday night to clinch the AL Central title.
Gerald Laird added a bases-loaded double, Rick Porcello (10-12) pitched shutout ball into the sixth inning and Jhonny Peralta went deep off Bruce Chen (11-14) to help Detroit reach the post-season in consecutive years for the first time since 1934-35.
"We wanted to win this game. That was our goal, to win this one," Cabrera said. "We did it."
After hanging over the dugout railing the entire ninth inning, the Tigers streamed onto the field and behind the pitchers' mound to celebrate their accomplishment the moment Jose Valverde got Alcides Escobar to ground out to shortstop with a runner on second for his 35th save in 40 chances.
'He's unbelievable. He's a once-in-a-lifetime player.' —Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski on Triple Crown chaser Miguel Cabrera
The Tigers (87-73) will have the worst record among AL division champions, which means they'll open the playoffs Saturday at home against the division winner with the second-best mark.
Not that when and where matters much to Jim Leyland's bunch.
They're just glad to be back in the playoffs.
"It was a rocky road, it was a tough season, but in this business, you have to be able to take some hits," Leyland said. "This isn't a place for the faint-hearted. Hell, we took a lot of punches, a lot of them justified, some of them maybe not. But hey, we can take a punch."
After winning the division by 15 games last season and signing Prince Fielder in the off-season, the Tigers entered spring training with lofty expectations. But they got off to a surprisingly slow start and were below .500 in early July. They were still well behind Chicago early last month.
The White Sox faltered, though, and the Tigers took advantage.
"It wasn't easy," said Fielder, who also had four hits, "but we got it done."
Now, with Cabrera closing in on baseball's first Triple Crown since 1967 and Justin Verlander in contention for a second straight Cy Young Award, Detroit is the hottest team in the majors.
Right-hander Anibal Sanchez has been terrific down the stretch, Fielder and Austin Jackson are having big years at the plate, and the shoddy fielding that could have forced the Tigers to sit home in October has improved to the point that they'll be pressing on into the post-season.
"You get that kind of momentum, usually it ends up very good," team owner Mike Ilitch said.
The improved fielding was never more evident than in the fifth inning Monday night, when the Royals had loaded the bases. Escobar hit a hard grounder just to the side of second base, and Omar Infante made a nice glove-flip to Peralta covering the bag to end the inning.
The play allowed the Tigers to cling to a 1-0 lead, provided by Peralta's homer in the fifth inning, until they could tack on five more runs in the sixth.
Cabrera broke a tie with the Rangers' Josh Hamilton for the major league lead in homers with his 44th, a solo shot to right, and two fielding mistakes by David Lough in centre led to another run.
Laird's bases-loaded double knocked Chen from the game, and effectively knocked the White Sox out of the playoffs, though they didn't do much to help themselves down the stretch.
Chicago beat the Indians 11-0 Monday night for just its third win in 13 games.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have won seven of their last eight as they surged to the division crown, including five straight against the Royals, who have dropped eight of their last nine.
Porcello kept the Royals off the scoreboard until the sixth, when Alex Gordon's homer to right field finally gave Kansas City some life. Leyland wasted no time lifting his right-hander, who'd done enough to end a string of six straight losses and pick up his first victory in nine starts.
Cabrera had singles in the fourth, seventh and ninth in addition to his homer in the sixth, pushing his AL-leading average to .329, ahead of the Angels' Mike Trout and the Twins' Joe Mauer. Cabrera also moved his astonishing RBI total to 137, by far the best in the majors.
Cabrera was only part of the party Monday night, though, slapping backs and exchanging high-fives with the rest of his teammates as Detroit locked up its place in the post-season.
He could be the centre of the celebration when the regular season ends Wednesday night.
"He's unbelievable. He's a once-in-a-lifetime player," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "I talked to him and he said, 'The Triple Crown is important, but it's not the most important thing. I want to win a championship."'