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Ten reasons why Tigers are returning to postseason

Dominant rotation, another historic Miggy season have Detroit back in playoffs

MINNEAPOLIS -- Call these the hybrid Tigers.

They haven't run away with the American League Central like the 2011 team did in the final month. They didn't need a comeback over the final two weeks like last year's team did, either. The Tigers led by eight games or more for just three days this season, but they have held at least a share of the division lead for all but 21 games this season.

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This year's Tigers team has always had loftier expectations than winning the Central. Even their biggest critics concede that the talent level wasn't close in this race, but it has taken more than talent for the Tigers to get this far.

Here's a look back at 10 reasons why the Tigers are headed back to the postseason and having won three consecutive AL Central titles:

The rotation
Make no mistake, Tigers starters set the tone for this team on a game-in, game-out basis. No matter what has gone on with the offense or what questions lingered about the bullpen, a solid start from Detroit's starter on a given day gives it a chance to win. And given the talent assembled in the rotation, a solid start became a regular occurrence. Even the Tigers' weakest link on any given turn was often better than the fourth or fifth starters on any other club.

The Tigers' rotation will end the season leading the AL in wins, ERA, innings pitched, strikeouts, homer ratio and slugging percentage allowed. It's just the fifth Major League rotation in 35 years -- and just the second AL rotation -- to have five starters win at least 13 games. If Anibal Sanchez strikes out six Marlins this weekend, the Tigers will become the first team since the 1969 Astros with three 200-strikeout pitchers.

Miguel Cabrera, the Sequel
Cabrera didn't end up repeating his Triple Crown season from 2012, but statistically, he has pretty well topped it. Before abdominal and groin injuries finally limited him, Cabrera was on pace to become the first Major League hitter since Jimmie Foxx in 1932 to hit .350 or better with 50 homers and 150 RBIs. With a strong finish, Cabrera could still join Todd Helton as the only hitters since Lou Gehrig to bat .350 with 40 homers and 140 RBIs. He became the first right-handed hitter to win three consecutive batting titles since Rogers Hornsby in the 1920s.

For all the talk about Wins Above Replacement and the debate over the AL Most Valuable Player Award, Cabrera is clearly the heart of this team. His play through injuries actually backed up that standing, even as it eventually hindered his statistics. Four of his 11 home runs came in the eighth inning or later in games within two runs, including a go-ahead shot off Danny Salazar in Cleveland and two homers in three days off Mariano Rivera.

All the wins over Cleveland
The Indians made this division a race because they put up more wins than the Tigers against the rest of the league. Detroit won the title by beating Cleveland 15 times in 19 games, including a 9-1 record at Progressive Field. The back breaker came with a four-game series sweep in early August that included two late-inning comebacks, expanding Detroit's lead from three games to seven.

The setup man becomes the closer
The Tigers didn't have a closer when the season began, and they didn't have a reliable one when they brought the old one back. Once the Jose Valverde experiment ended, however, Detroit found its closer had been in the bullpen all along. Joaquin Benoit, the setup man who became part of a bullpen by committee when the season began, took the job and ran with it at the end of June, converting his first 22 save chances. In the process, he posted some of his best pure pitching statistics since his amazing 2010 comeback season. Benoit not only solidified a young bullpen around him, he kept the Tigers from giving up top prospects for a closer on the trade market.

Victor's comeback
Physically, Victor Martinez was there from Opening Day, back in Detroit's lineup after missing all of 2012 recovering from knee surgery. His bat took a little longer to come around. After two middling months that made some wonder if Martinez had lost his swing for good, Martinez became one of baseball's best hitters again. He hit .379 with a .955 OPS in a 76-game stretch from June 29-Sept. 21. By mid-September, he was as much of a target for intentional walks as Cabrera.

The old rival
The Tigers jumped at the opportunity to add Torii Hunter when he expressed interest in signing as a free agent last November. Hunter ended up building the bridge the Tigers had sought between talented leadoff man Austin Jackson and the middle of the order. On the field, nobody in baseball this year has scored or driven in more runs from the second spot in the order. Off the field, no veteran in an already veteran-heavy Tigers clubhouse has a stronger leadership voice.

The revolving door ends at second
For the first time since Placido Polanco left, the Tigers went into Spring Training knowing who their second baseman was going to be. They just didn't know Omar Infante was going to have this kind of season. He would have ranked among the league's batting leaders if not for an ankle injury that cost him more than a month. More important, Infante's range and fielding shored up an up-and-middle defense that had been a weakness.

Dave Dombrowski finds a shortstop
Every year, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski makes a move around the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline that fills a major void. This time, his biggest move filled a void that hadn't been created yet. After weeks of speculation whether Jhonny Peralta would be suspended as a result of Major League Baseball's Biogenesis investigation, Dombrowski got tired of waiting. The resulting trade to grab slick-fielding rookie Jose Iglesias from Boston not only filled the job for Peralta's 50-game suspension, but possibly the next several years beyond that.

Drew Smyly, lefty reliever
The way Smyly has performed out of Detroit's bullpen, it's difficult to remember that he nearly won the fifth-starter job out of Spring Training, if not for Rick Porcello. Instead of stashing him at Triple-A Toledo for insurance, however, the Tigers brought Smyly north in the bullpen, where his success earned him a bigger and bigger role until he was the primary lefty by midseason. Just a handful of AL relievers have thrown more innings, and fewer have thrown so many innings more effectively.

Porcello, fifth starter
Anibal Sanchez's re-signing was expected to be Porcello's ticket out of town. If the Tigers had gotten the right value on the Spring Training trade market, Porcello might well have been gone. But the underwhelming offers didn't match what Tigers officials were seeing all spring from Porcello, armed with a better curveball for left-handed hitters. They kept him, and the resulting season threw everyone a curve. From ERA to hits allowed, he had his best numbers since his rookie season, but his strikeout total looked like a new style of pitcher than the young sinkerballer.

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

Detroit Tigers, Joaquin Benoit, Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez, Rick Porcello