With their 3-1 win over the A’s Friday night, the Tigers clinched their first division title since 1987, and their first AL Central title ever. That ended a 24-year run without a division crown, which, per ESPN Stats & Info, had been the fourth-longest active drought in the major leagues.* Before anyone brings up their pennant in 2006, remember, that came when the Tigers won the wild card -- proof positive that the AL East doesn’t hold the mortgage on Bud Selig’s extra playoff team -- so that’s not the same thing.
As events go, the Tigers winning is something that should warm the hearts of Kitties fans old and new. It can reassure those who remember 2009’s near-miss and exit via a one-game tiebreaker with the Twins, or those whose memories stretch further back, say to the desperate run of 1991, when Sparky Anderson almost managed to drag a pitching-light team of slow sluggers and aging greats to a surprise playoff berth.
Thinking of the late, great skipper of Tigers and Reds fame is easy when you consider the Tigers’ current skipper: Jim Leyland. With another entry into October’s action, Leyland gets another chance to join Sparky in a fairly small group. Anderson was the first manager to win World Series titles in each league, and it’s an accomplishment only Tony La Russa has since matched. Leyland had his first shot at achieving the feat in 2006 -- only to see La Russa get there first when his Cards beat the Tigers. Strangely enough, Anderson also achieved the honor in 1984 by beating a team with a manager making his own bid for this exclusive club, the late Dick Williams of the Padres.
Can Leyland’s team put Leyland over the top this time around? It’s easy to identify the reasons they could, because this isn’t the same team people were talking about a few months ago. Earlier this season, Detroit was a team that made you wonder whether its obvious strengths could overcome its equally glaring weaknesses. The rotation was Justin Verlander and four days of praying for rain, fog or midges. The bullpen was Jose Valverde and a relatively anonymous collection of maybes -- or maybe-nots. The lineup was split sharply between All-Star hammers such as Miguel Cabrera and Alex Avila and next to no offensive production from four different slots.
But that was in July, and GM Dave Dombrowski didn’t sit still and let it ride, making a series of deals for second-tier talents to shore up a team that already had the A-list on board. Doug Fister gets and deserves the most attention, and will continue to after starting the Tigers’ clincher Friday, but adding Wilson Betemit to platoon at third and Delmon Young to start in left has helped too. Not everything has worked -- early-season stat-head fave David Pauley has struggled since being added to the 'pen -- but no GM is going to see everything he touches turn to gold.
The outcome has been dramatic. The Tigers kicked into a higher gear, as they’ve raced out to a 39-20 record since the All-Star break. They're scoring 5.2 runs per game in the second half, a clip that stands up to the league-leading offenses in Boston, New York and Texas. The lineup’s questions have been reduced to sorting out who to use at second base and in right field, but sharing the keystone between Ramon Santiago and Ryan Raburn has the pair both delivering OPS marks above .900 since the break.
The pitching is also now very different. Verlander’s bid for multiple awards is still going strong, but with Fister tossing seven quality starts in his nine Tiger turns and Max Scherzer sporting a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half, picking a postseason rotation has become much easier. And the bullpen has been exceptional since the break, posting a 2.89 ERA and a collective .630 OPS after producing first-half marks of 4.68 and .755. Adding Phil Coke back to the bullpen to join Dan Schlereth has given Leyland a pair of power lefties, which has let the manager pick his spots with Joaquin Benoit, and suddenly Valverde’s a closer with plenty of effective help.
So the Tigers can settle in and celebrate their win, going into October a much stronger team than it was just a few months ago. It’s a credit to Dombrowski for improving it on the fly, to Leyland for adapting and to the players themselves for making this club something more than a stars-and-scrubs squad. Whether that’s a formula that will give Leyland a second shot at dugout history remains to be seen, but it’ll be something well worth watching.
*: Once the Brewers clinch -- or if, should one be a nervous Nellie about these things -- their first-ever NL Central title, they’ll end another one of these long streaks, in their case a 29-year run since their AL East crown in 1982. That will leave the Royals’ agonizing 26-year stretch and the hapless Expos-Nats’ 43-year run without ever winning a title -- the entire length of their existence.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.