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Tigers remain focused on the ultimate prize after clinching another division crown

The Tigers continued their reign in the Central Division with a win on Sunday, but they still have much to accomplish.

Leon Halip

DETROIT — Before game 162 on Sunday morning, it was peaceful in the clubhouse. Despite two tough losses in two days, the Tigers were not tensed. It was a loose atmosphere, not one of apprehension or concern. The weight of a must-win game was pointedly obvious but it didn't need to be stated. Not by the rookies or the veterans, and certainly not the manager.

Music played in the background while players relaxed and mulled about, waiting for an historic win. Some played soccer while others, like Rick Porcello and Bryan Holaday, played a focused game of chess. As Tigers manager Brad Ausmus put it, they were a "happy-go-lucky" bunch before the most important game of the season, yet they were a picture of calm.

"This is what we do," Nick Castellanos said. "We're professional baseball players. This is what we're good at. We're confident in our abilities."

Fast forward from a nearly zen-like depiction, to the one that followed the Tigers clinching their fourth consecutive American League Central Division title. Plastic draped the walls of the clubhouse as players and media alike became drenched in the celebrations of champagne, water, or anything else a player found available. No one was spared as "Turn Down For What" blasted throughout the room.

For the Tigers, celebrating Sunday's accomplishment was only the beginning of a long road that has merely transitioned into a new path rather than reaching an end. Some of the players have been down this road before.

For others, like the rookies on the team, it is an entirely new experience. Both carry the expectations that come with playing on a top contending team like the Tigers, whether they've done it before or not.

"This is what you work for," Martinez said. "That's why every game counts, every game means a lot. This just show everybody how baseball can be. Don't take any game for granted. It was a long year, a lot of ups and downs, we were able to pull it off. It was a lot of fight."

Rather than select someone with experience to manage that fight for the now four-time reigning AL Central Division Champions, the Tigers handed the job to Ausmus, a man who had never managed a major league team before.

Throughout the season he's carried himself with an even-keeled manner, his demeanor rarely changing through thick and thin. For Ausmus, the division title is merely a piece of the puzzle and he shied away from personal recognition for the results of the season.

"It's not about me," Ausmus said. "It's about the guys. We had a little adversity through the year, but we persevered. We'd always feel like we were on the cusp on clinching. It's kind of a relief now."

It's a relief that Ausmus, the team, and for that matter the fans, thought should have been achieved some time ago. Instead, on the last day of the regular season with what felt like nowhere to go, the Tigers found themselves still fighting to defend their division title. It was frustrating not only for the fans, but for the team as well. No one experienced that frustration more than the team and at times in the season, it was palpable in conversation.

With the regular season over and a division title now locked down, the team is looking forward to a new chapter in the postseason. Alex Avila, Justin Verlander, and Miguel Cabrera have all been around this barbecue several times before, but they said it's nothing to be taken for granted, knowing there are lessons to be taken away from the long and grueling season.

For Joba Chamberlain, he's still happy he doesn't have to face two players that have become his teammates and friends, something he said at the start of the year. After the way both Victor Martinez and Cabrera have performed this year, including Cabrera's battle through injury, it's something Chamberlain felt was worth repeating.

"It was the reason I came here," Chamberlain said. "Number one reason, I didn't have to face Victor and Miggy anymore. And I knew what (the Tigers) had, from the top to the bottom. Just coming over here and being able to win with these guys. It's a great group, a great organization. Just honored and privileged."

The season gave Chamberlain a way to avoid two of the game's best sluggers, but it also provided him an opportunity to make a comeback after past rough seasons. While it hasn't been a storybook season for him, it has been uplifting. Instead, the storybook season belongs to teammate J.D. Martinez, who has been eye-opening to say the least.

"There's really no words that can describe how much it means to me," Martinez said. "I could never imagine myself being here, in February. I couldn't have scripted up a better scenario."

But Martinez is careful to not let the festivities of Sunday's excitement get the better of him. He knows there is still much work to be done. Thursday brings an entirely new season, one where everything is a tick higher at every turn.

"I really try not to think about it as much," he said. "You've got to play this game in the present, in the now. I don't have time to really think about the past. I imagine when the season is over, I'll dwell on it."

The difficulty of this season forced the Tigers to play to the bitter end, which allowed them to avoid the dreaded abundance of off-days before the postseason begins. That the Tigers have needed to have an extra measure of fight in them is something Verlander finds valuable, even if it wasn't fun at times.

"It's a good omen," Verlander said. "Everything didn't go smooth, but we battled through it. That gives us a great chance to go into the playoffs, fight through adversity and do whatever we have to do to win baseball games."

It's not about if you break, but how much you can bend, and at no point did the Tigers break this season. The team always found a way to keep calm and push through every rough patch. In a way, so too did the fans.

In the postseason atmosphere that aspect becomes invaluable for the Tigers. The 2014 season is far from over. There is still plenty of baseball to play, but the team firmly believes that they are better for the struggles they have faced and overcome.

"Teams are gunning for you," Don Kelly said. "It was a tough division, a tough race. Whatever day you clinch is special. We just had a guys step up, battle and keep on grinding it out."