Tigers confident they'll be playing in October

DETROIT -- Brandon Inge has gotten all sorts of things in the mail from fans, but this, well, this was the weirdest. With the Tigers' American League Central Division lead down to one game, with a critical three-game series against the White Sox looming, a desperate Detroit fan decided Inge needed some inspiration.

Inge, the third baseman, opened his mail to find a copy of a Tim McGraw CD. The note instructed him to listen to track one. He flipped the package over and laughed at the song: "How Bad Do You Want It?"

Yes, it's fair to say that the city of Detroit -- suddenly re-interested in baseball after a long drought -- is freaking out. A little more than a month ago, the Tigers had a 10-game lead and were hitting the ball all over the park. Those days are now just another of the Motor City's fabulous ruins.

One of the local newspapers had a gigantic red "Panic" button above the A-1 fold last week. Fans are sending in music. Strangers on the street are begging manager Jim Leyland to get the team to start swinging the bats again.

Every game is important. Clinching early is a forgotten dream. Sure, the paper still runs the now meaningless magic number counter, a remnant of that 40 games over .500 high-water mark. But magic number? That's a joke. The only magic number is how many runs it will take to beat Chicago on Monday.

"This is going right down to the end," Leyland says.

Detroiters have been tuning in for the past week or so, checking the Twins' and the White Sox's scores, trying to do the math in their heads. There are three teams and two spots. Someone's going home disappointed.

It's not just fans who are doing the math.

Leyland got up at 3 a.m. a few days ago to smoke a cigarette and check a late score. The big flat-screen televisions in the clubhouse and in the players' dining room are tuned to Minnesota or Chicago games. After a late game last week, players hung out to see the Twins rally to beat the Oakland A's. Not good news.

"We're in a position to take care of our own fate," Leyland says. "We have to take care of our own business, but are you hoping they get beat? Sure. To say it's not in the back of your mind, you're lying."

Now, for three days at least, there's one less score to check. The White Sox are no longer on a clubhouse Sony. They're right there in front of the Tigers. Three of the biggest games of the season, all in a row. Leyland has been keeping the mood light. The players don't need him to tell them that there's pressure. That's on the front page of the paper. That's on the television.

"There's no panicking," he says. "We're either good enough, or we're not. I don't think we've seen any players panicking. We have no excuses. We're either good enough or we're not."

With that, he slips a Marlboro Red from its box, lights it and takes a long puff.

"I think there's a certain amount of pressure, but it's good pressure," he says, "and if it's not good pressure, you've got a problem."

The players seem to believe him. The clubhouse was loose and bright last week. Players joked with each other. Big smiles all the way around.

"I'm having fun," outfielder/designated hitter Marcus Thames says.

But still, it's crunch time. The Tigers know that. Everyone's gearing up for the playoffs in Detroit, and in case you couldn't tell, the toilet flushed in Leyland's office last week and out walked former Red Wings head coach Scotty Bowman. He smiled and headed off down the hall. Evidently, the Tigers are unbeaten when he shows up. As he walked past the dining room, one of the players called out, hopefully, "See you tomorrow."

It's September, they're in a pennant race and every little thing helps.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.