MINNEAPOLIS — The Detroit Tigers finally have a little bit of breathing room in what has been an air-tight AL Central title race.
Miguel Cabrera has no such luxury as he tries to become the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years.
Prince Fielder hit a two-run homer in the eighth inning to lift Detroit to a 2-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Sunday, moving the Tigers to a season-high three game lead over the White Sox in the AL Central.
The White Sox lost to Tampa Bay 6-2. So with three games to go, Detroit can clinch the division title with a win in Kansas City on Monday or a Chicago loss to Cleveland.
“We’re not all the way happy yet,” Fielder said. “We have what, three games left? Try to win those and after that, we’ll see what happens.”
Fielder’s opposite-field shot off Jared Burton (3-2) just barely cleared the wall in left field for his 30th homer of the season.
Cabrera, who is trying to become the first player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to win the Triple Crown, went 0 for 3 with an intentional walk, dropping his AL-leading batting average to .325.
Twins star Joe Mauer went 3 for 4 with an intentional walk to raise his average to .323, putting him right on Cabrera’s heels going into the final series of the season.
Anibal Sanchez gave up one run on seven hits in 6 1-3 innings, Phil Coke (2-3) got the win in relief and Jose Valverde picked up his 34th save.
Cabrera and the powerful Tigers offense were held down for most of the game by Liam Hendriks, who gave up five hits and struck out three in seven shutout innings.
When Pedro Florimon gave the Twins a 1-0 lead on a single in the seventh, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire went to the rock steady right-hander Burton for the eighth. But Austin Jackson led off with a single up the middle and Fielder hit the first pitch he saw out of the park.
The big first baseman, who doesn’t often show emotion on the diamond, nearly bowled over manager Jim Leyland when he reached the dugout. He was mobbed by his teammates, a celebration eclipsed in the clubhouse a little while later when the Tigers watched the Rays finish off the White Sox.
“When it’s there, I let it out,” Fielder said.
Cabrera entered the day leading the AL in batting average and RBIs — both by comfortable margins — and tied with Texas star Josh Hamilton for the lead in home runs.
But the batting race suddenly is up in the air.
Mauer hit three singles off Sanchez, while Cabrera had some hard luck with a ball hit squarely that Florimon was able to snatch out of the air at shortstop.
“He’s a great hitter and Joe’s a great hitter,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve got three left and they’ve got three left. We’ll see what it comes down to.”
But Cabrera did find a way to have an impact on defense, jumping at first base to snag a line drive from Chris Parmelee in the sixth inning that stranded two runners in scoring position. The Twins had runners on first and third with nobody out in the inning, but Sanchez was able to get Justin Morneau to pop out and Ryan Doumit to tap one right back to him before Cabrera helped him wiggle out of the jam.
“This is his team,” Fielder said of Cabrera. “I’m here to help him. This is his team, I just want to come and help and be a part of it. Be a part of being able to watch somebody that great. I just love being a fan, just watching him.”
NOTES: Tigers RHP Max Scherzer (shoulder) said he felt good after playing catch on Saturday and could be available to start the regular season finale against the Royals on Wednesday. Leyland said the team would be cautious with Scherzer, who missed his last start because of soreness in his deltoid. … Gardenhire said he hopes to retain his entire coaching staff going into next season but knows that the front office could try to shake things up after back-to-back 90-loss seasons. “I have all the faith that they can do the job, but some of these things aren’t going to be left up to me,” he said. … The Tigers will start RHP Rick Porcello (9-12, 4.68) in the opener against Kansas City on Monday against LHP Bruce Chen (11-13, 5.13).