It's the second week of September and the Tigers are two games back in the AL Central. You probably didn't see that coming. It seems like forever since the last time the Tigers weren't in first place this late in the season, but we actually only have to go back two years to find a similar situation. On September 8, 2012 the Tigers also found themselves two games back, and they would fall to three games behind as late as September 18th before storming back to win the division and the American League. The Tigers did not trail at any point in the Septembers of 2011 or 2013.
This afternoon they'll begin a series that has some huge potential ramifications. The first-place Royals come to town, and one team will gain either one or three games over the other. That means that come Thursday morning, the Tigers could be sitting alone in first place, or they could be looking up at a five-game deficit with 16 games left to play. The latter situation would be difficult to recover from. But more than likely, this series will put the Tigers either one- or three-games back, which is a big difference.
The Royals have been red-hot in the second half. After a slow start following the All-Star break (swept in Boston followed by a loss to the White Sox in Chicago), they found themselves seven games behind the Tigers in late July. They seemed to waffle between being buyers or sellers at the non-waiver trade deadlines, and ultimately settled on being neither. Their only move at the deadline was to trade Danny Valencia to the Blue Jays for Liam Hendricks and Eric Kratz. A couple weeks later, after reeling off a 9-1 streak to start August, they acquired Josh Willingham from the Twins.
Since that slow start to the second half they've gone 31-13 while allowing only 3.4 runs per game.
More recently, however, they've shown signs of cooling. Over their last three series' they've averaged a paltry 2.2 runs per game, even though their stellar pitching allowed them to go 5-4 over that stretch. There's also a hidden advantage that the Tigers hold in the form of a suspended game in which the Royals will get three outs to score two runs, or else tack another loss onto their record.
But even if the Tigers can't chase down the Royals, winning the Central isn't their only path to the postseason. They currently sit a half-game behind the Seattle Mariners for the second wild-card spot, and the M's remaining schedule will not do them any favors. If the Tigers fail to win the division but secure that final wild-card position, they could still win a one-game playoff — likely against the Oakland A's — to reach the ALDS. It's not ideal to be put in a one-and-done situation, but if the Tigers won that game the end would certainly justify the means. The Tigers are as well-equipped to win a one-game series as any team in the league.
However, the goal is to avoid the wild-card game at all costs. The Tigers and Royals have six games remaining against each other, and if either team wins four it could decide who gets a free pass to the ALDS. If either team wins five, it could potentially eliminate the other from contention altogether. We'll know the results of half of those games this week.
It's exciting, to put it lightly.
So what do you think, will the Tigers make a final push to overtake their rivals in Kansas City, or are the Royals just too hot to tame?