DETROIT — For the last four years, the Tigers have had that one team they dominated in the AL Central. In 2011 it was the Minnesota Twins, in 2012 they ruled the Kansas City Royals, and in 2013 they controlled the Cleveland Indians. This season, the Tigers have triumphed over the Royals yet again, but they haven't faired so well against the Twins since 2012.
The Twins are in last place in the Central Division this year. The Tigers close out the regular season at home, against the Twins. In 2012 and 2013, the Tigers finished with a .556 and .579 record against the Twins, respectively. While those numbers are respectable, they aren't commanding, and this year the Tigers have just a .467 record against them. They need to do better than that in the final four-game series, which begins Thursday.
"It's competitive athletics, teams don't roll over," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said of Monday's loss. "They have a job to do, they're trying to prove things to themselves and things to their managers, general managers and coaches. Like I said, they're not going to roll over, this is clearly evidence."
The Royals have been unpredictable lately and the pressure of postseason-like play has gotten to them at times. But there's also no way for the Tigers to control how the Royals perform for the next six days. They did what they could in Kansas City. All the Tigers can do is grind it out in the games they can control.
Monday's loss wasn't the result of poor pitching, but a missing offense is going to magnify any minor mistakes, which leaves little room for error. When the Tigers' offense is on, it's hot, but when it goes cold it seems to completely disappear. Detroit can't afford to allow its persistent streakiness to cost them a spot in the playoffs.
The gravity of the final week is not lost on anyone in the clubhouse. Neither does a loss rattle thoughts or call into question the capability of the offense on the whole. The Tigers expect a great deal from each other and whether the frustration is there or not, it's not something the team dwells on. All they can do is look toward the next at-bat, the next game and the next opposing pitcher.
"They're over there trying to make a living just like we are," Ian Kinsler said. "They're trying to prove themselves for next year just like guys in here. It's the highest level of baseball. It's not like we're playing a Triple-A team. They're very capable. You've gotta play better than the other team on that given day to win."
Before the Tigers can get to the Twins though, they have to go through the White Sox, and they aren't playing dead either. Their season may be over in terms of making the playoffs, but they're a nagging problem when they want to be, despite their numbers. The Tigers hold a mere 8–9 record against the White Sox with Monday's loss and Detroit still has to contend with Chicago's left-handed starter Chris Sale on Wednesday.
As the season quickly winds down, the scoreboard serves as a constant reminder throughout the course of a game that time is slipping away, but it's not something the team typically looks at. It's usually reserved for after the game but this week is different.
Ausmus said it's something he is doing more often, out of necessity. Kinsler has found himself taking a peek, influenced by his teammate, Miguel Cabrera, who does it all the time — that is when he's not chatting it up with someone, somewhere on the bases.
"Miguel's looking over there every other pitch so he might get me to turn around and check it out," Kinsler said. "We control what we can do in here, and if we win the rest of the games, we're in. So that's all we're worried about right now."
A lot can happen in six games. The Tigers could win the next three while the Royals lose the same number, or the Tigers could drop the majority of their upcoming games. They could clinch the division on Friday or miss it entirely.
Either way, the problematic Twins and White Sox aren't going away, and the Tigers need to find a way to put both opposing teams to bed for good if they're going to make it to the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
"Sometimes you have teams that play you well and they're two of them," J.D. Martinez said. "Now we just gotta bear down and get ready for tomorrow. It's not gonna be an easy last week. It's going to be a grind, it's going to be a nail-biter because both those teams play us extremely well."