KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jim Leyland had tears in his eyes as he surveyed his crowded office Monday night.
There was Miguel Cabrera, surrounded by his family, with the Triple Crown within reach. Justin Verlander, closing in on another Cy Young Award, had a pair of swimming goggles perched on his head, while Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and general manager Dave Dombrowski slapped each other on the back.
The smell of cigars wafted through the door to the clubhouse as the Tigers, counted out so many times this season, celebrated a 6-3 victory over the Kansas City Royals that clinched the AL Central title and back-to-back playoff trips for the first time since 1934-35.
“We wanted to win this game. That was our goal, to win this one,” said Cabrera, who had four hits, including a solo homer during a five-run sixth inning. “We did it.”
The Tigers were even mindful of their victory celebration, choosing Fre Brut — an alcohol-removed sparkling wine — in deference to Cabrera, who’s had his share of alcohol abuse problems.
“It feels really good,” said Prince Fielder, who was doused in the stuff from his dreadlocks all the way down to his shoelaces. “I mean, it wasn’t easy, but we got it done.”
Fielder also finished with four hits and Gerald Laird had 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 stake the Tigers to a big cushion.
After hanging over the dugout railing the entire ninth inning, they streamed onto the field behind the pitchers’ mound to celebrate the moment Jose Valverde got Alcides Escobar to ground out to shortstop with a runner on second for his 35th save in 40 chances.
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 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 Fielder in the offseason, 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.
“You’ve got to take your hat off to them. They’re the champs,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “They’ve got the starting pitching, the power, a great bullpen. They’ve got a chance to go deep.”
Indeed, with Cabrera closing in on baseball’s first Triple Crown since 1967 and Verlander in the running for more hardware, Detroit may be 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 postseason.
“You get that kind of momentum, usually it ends up very good,” said Ilitch, who has spent a lot of his money to chase the Tigers’ first World Series title since 1984.
“I wasn’t nervous about it at all. We didn’t fall apart,” he said. “We just had the bottom part of the batting order that wasn’t contributing, and at the end, we got a little bit out of them.”
The Tigers clung to a 1-0 lead provided by Peralta’s homer until their big sixth inning.
Cabrera broke a tie with Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton for the major league lead in homers with his 44th, a solo shot to right. Two fielding mistakes by David Lough in center led to another run.
Laird’s bases-loaded double knocked Chen from the game, and effectively knocked the second-place 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 batting 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 postseason.
He could be the center of the celebration when the regular season ends Wednesday night.
“He’s a once-in-a-lifetime player,” 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.’”
NOTES: The Royals celebrated the 20th anniversary of George Brett’s 3,000th hit, which occurred on Sept. 30, 1992. … RHP Doug Fister will start for Detroit on Tuesday night against RHP Jeremy Guthrie of the Royals. … Royals 1B Eric Hosmer and 3B Mike Moustakas could miss the final two games of the season. Hosmer has a strained right shoulder and Moustakas has a groin injury.