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Great expectations finally come to fruition

Detroit gets chance to celebrate title in city where heartbreaking '09 loss occurred

MINNEAPOLIS -- Four years after the Tigers had their hearts broken in this town, they finally got to celebrate in the Twin Cities. As high as the expectations were for them this year, those who were at the Metrodome for the heartbreak in 2009 couldn't take it for granted.

It's a different race in the American League Central now compared to then -- this time it doesn't involve the Twins -- and this is a much different Tigers team than the one that went to a tiebreaking game against Minnesota in 2009. Even the ballpark is different, a completely changed atmosphere at Target Field.

Nonetheless, as the Tigers clinched their third consecutive division crown Wednesday night with a 1-0 win, the significance of then against now was striking.

The team that spent years trying to get past the Twins now has matched their dynasty. Even though the Tigers' goals this year go far beyond this moment, they wanted to soak it in.

"Being part of that team in '09 and experiencing three straight years of winning the division, words don't describe that," catcher Alex Avila said. "It's an unbelievable, incredible accomplishment. I mean, being in the league five years and I get to go to the postseason three times, win the division three times, it's incredible. You can't take that for granted."

Avila was a rookie on that 2009 team. Justin Verlander was in his fourth season then, thinking he was about to get back to the postseason. It was a lesson for him. Asked whether he could imagine winning three in a row, Verlander honestly said yes.

"I did imagine it," he said, "but that was 2006. It was my rookie year. Everything's a whirlwind and everything seemed so easy. I thought it was going to happen every year. Quickly figured out that's not the case. So I think that allows me to cherish this."

The Tigers came out of that 2009 season having blown a three-game lead with four games to play, wondering when they might break through to get back to the postseason after their '06 run. Nobody took it harder than Miguel Cabrera, who was emotional in the clubhouse afterwards.

"Now that was heartbreaking. Not a good day," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski recalled.

As they celebrated in the visiting clubhouse at Target Field four years later, the Tigers had become the first team since the 2002-04 Twins to win three consecutive AL Central crowns.

Back in those days, with the Tigers mired in last place, owner Mike Ilitch once pointed to the Twins as an example of what they'd like to be. The Tigers arguably have that now.

"This club, this organization over here, has won for years, the Twins," Dombrowski said, "and we were trying to catch up to them for years and play with them. It's gratifying. We've changed a lot from when we were first here, and it's great."

They're the first Tigers team to win three straight titles since the 1907-09 Tigers won three consecutive AL pennants.

"We went from a team that was a bottom dweller and everybody laughed at to a serious contender every year," Verlander said. "Guys want to come play here now, and that has a lot to do with building a winning franchise. You have to have guys that want to come here. A lot of credit goes to Dave and Mr. Ilitch and all the front office, because they've done a heck of a job bringing the right pieces in here."

The Tigers were such a contender going into this year that this was almost expected. More than in any other year, manager Jim Leyland had to manage expectations. He talks every year about pressure meaning you have a good team. This year's pressure was tougher.

"When we started in Spring Training, it was almost like people, the only thing we could do really was fail," Leyland said, "because people had such high expectations. I talked about that in Spring Training. I said, 'Don't get up in the expectations. Get caught up in how you're going to live up to the expectations.' That's the most important thing, and I think we did that."

It wasn't nearly that easy. Though the Tigers won 19 of their first 30 games to sprint out to an early division lead, they essentially played .500 ball for a two-month stretch from early May until the All-Star break. Add in a torrid first half from the Indians, and Detroit fell to second place for a couple stretches, most recently July 2, and struggled to build a gap after that.

Even a Tigers sweep of their four-game division clash in Cleveland in August, part of a 12-game winning streak, didn't end up being the springboard many hoped toward putting the division away. While Detroit hovered 20-25 games over .500, the Indians kept pace and later slashed the gap as low as 4 1/2 games on Sept. 9. Detroit has gone 11-4 since, which didn't restore the old distance, but it held off the Tribe long enough to run out the number of games left to make up ground.

They've been anticipating this. They just couldn't be obsessed over it. Finally, they could savor it.

The tears streaming down Leyland's face as he talked with reporters, tucked away in his office, showed his appreciation. The lift Torii Hunter gave him, physically carrying him from his office into the middle of the clubhouse for a champagne shower, showed the players' appreciation.

Hunter was at the center of that Twins dynasty. This was his first with Detroit. He wanted to make sure Leyland was part of it.

"That's our head. That's our authority," Hunter said. "He should be a part of that. He's one of the reasons why we're out there. … He needed to be a part of it. He's the man. I took him in there so he could get a champagne shower. He got a shower and moonwalked out."

Now Leyland, who joins Tony La Russa as the only managers to lead two different franchises to three consecutive division titles, can move ahead with the decisions that have been lingering for the past couple weeks.

Leyland has to decide how much to rest ailing Cabrera, whose groin and abdominal issues have hampered him for nearly three months, but whose timing at the plate Leyland doesn't want to risk losing with a long stretch off. He has to decide how best to order his stacked rotation for the AL Division Series, a task that becomes easier with four days off before Game 1 on Oct. 4.

Last but not least, Leyland and team officials have to finalize their plans for Jhonny Peralta, whose 50-game suspension for his role in the Biogenesis scandal ended after Wednesday's game. Dombrowski said Wednesday that Peralta will be activated in time for Friday's season-ending series opener at Miami. Whether he'll make the postseason roster is another question.

Those are questions for the coming days. For Wednesday night, they didn't want to lose sight of what they just did.

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.
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