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Cautious Optimism: Division Title In Sight For Tigers After Double-Sweep

After sweeping the second and third place White Sox and Indians in back-to-back series, the Tigers have put the AL Central firmly in their grasp.

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How do you win your first division title since 1987? Well, sweeping the second and third place teams in back-to-back series to start September helps.

The Detroit Tigers entered Friday night's contest with the Chicago White Sox with a 5 1/2 game lead over them. After pounding Chicago pitching for 35 runs in three games, they left Chicago 8 1/2 games behind as they moved onto Cleveland.

Detroit then strolled into Progressive Field on Monday against the then second-place Indians with a 6 1/2 game lead. Technically Cleveland was still in it. Doug Fister pitched a gem of a game to open the series and Rick Porcello followed suit in the next game to bump that to 8 1/2 games.

When ace Justin Verlander won on Wednesday you just knew things were going the Tigers' way. Verlander struggled with his control and gave up a pair of two-run homers to Shelley Duncan and still won his 22nd game thanks to a Victor Martinez grand slam.

The Tribe and Sox are now both at least nine games back with just two and a half weeks left. The Tigers have the second-biggest division lead in baseball behind only Philadelphia.

I hate to call division races with that much time left, but this is about as close to over as you can get. The Tigers' magic number (the combined number of wins by Detroit and losses by the second place team to clinch) is now 12 with 19 games left in the season. Even the Tigers would be hard pressed to blow this lead.

And that is saying something considering how short a time it has been since the Tigers infamously blew a three game lead with four to play in 2009. That season, Detroit held the division lead for 146 days and entered the final four games needing just two wins to clinch the division.

They got one. Two days after the final regular season game, the Minnesota Twins won a thrilling 6-5 tiebreaker game with the Tigers.

The wounds of that season are still fresh in the minds of Tigers fans as they enter another homestretch with yet another division lead. The lead is bigger this time, but then again no team had ever blown a three game lead with four to play before the Tigers. Lots of things can happen in two weeks.

However, there just seems like there's something different with this Tigers team. Many of the same players from that 2009 squad make up the core of the current team, but in many ways they are a shell of a team once labeled as chokers.

Take Justin Verlander for instance. Yeah, he won 19 games in 2009, but over the last two months of the year he was only 7-4 with a 3.90 ERA. This season, Verlander has won ten straight starts with a 2.75 ERA since July 21.

New additions to the club since that epic fail have also been instrumental in helping the Tigers get the division lead and keep it. Starting pitcher Doug Fister has been the steal of the trade deadline, solidifying the No. 2 spot in the rotation behind Verlander. Since joining Detroit on Aug. 3, Fister is 4-1 with a 2.64 ERA and an astonishing strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 36 to 3. In the 21 games prior to that with Seattle he was 3-12 with 89 strikeouts and a 3.33 ERA.

The offseason addition of Victor Martinez has also filled a major hole in the spot behind Miguel Cabrera. Martinez has hit .326 this year with 89 RBIs and has forced teams to pitch to perennial MVP-candidate Cabrera. Teams who pitch around him anyway have done so at their own peril; Martinez is hitting .397 with runners in scoring position, sporting a .374 on-base percentage. Some would even argue that he is the true MVP of the team.

Don't forget the acquisition of Delmon Young in August, either. He's given Detroit nothing but hits since coming over from the Twins, beefing up the No. 3 hole in the lineup considerably.

But to really notice the change in this club, all you have to do is look at how they've fared against their main competition. Two years ago, the Tigers were only 7-12 against the Twins and 9-9 against the White Sox and Royals (they owned the Indians at 14-4). The record against the last-place Royals was particularly disturbing as they finished a whopping 21 1/2 games behind the Tigers and Twins.

Things are different nowadays. Detroit has reversed the trend, sporting winning records against all four Central division clubs; in total they are 40-21 within the division. Only the Milwaukee Brewers have a better record within their division.

Since the All-Star Break, where the Tigers held a slim half game lead, they are 32-19. The easiest way to win a division? Beat the crap out of the teams below you.

Need some more reassurance? ESPN currently has the Tigers' playoff chances at 99.3 percent. Chicago is at 0.5 percent and Cleveland 0.2 percent. (Note: since this was written last night, that has increased to 99.5 percent for Detroit. Chicago is down to 0.3 percent and Cleveland 0.2 percent).

The last time Detroit won a division championship, I was just one year old and the team was still a part of the American League East. An entire generation has had exactly zero division titles to celebrate. Hell, they only had three to begin with.

But, perhaps, this is a new era of Tigers baseball that we're witnessing here. It's not a guarantee yet, but it's pretty close.