MINNEAPOLIS -- In the top of the first inning, the Tigers spun Max Scherzer a one-run tightrope.
For seven innings, he walked across it toward the American League Central title.
The 20-game winner had his worst control of the season. He walked a season-high six, but he struck out 10 and didn't allow a run. "My worst best outing," Scherzer said.
After guarding the one-run lead for seven two-hit innings, he left after throwing a season-high 123 pitches.
The bullpen finished the stroll across the falls. The Tigers won, 1-0, at Target Field on Wednesday night and made it three straight first-place finishes for the first time since Ty Cobb & Co. won AL pennants in 1907-09.
After Jose Veras gave up a one-out infield single in the eighth, Drew Smyly retired the next two hitters.
Joaquin Benoit entered for the ninth to pitch for the third straight day for the first time this year. He looked fresh and threw hard. After a first-out fly ball, he fanned the next two hitters.
The most notable feature of the Tigers' on-field celebration came when the players all got in a circle on the infield and went through some chants and gestures for several seconds. Torii Hunter said he got them doing that a few weeks ago in the clubhouse, a half hour before every game. Now they could take it outside.
The Tigers have 11 postseason wins to go to reach their goal of winning the World Series. "We've got a lot of work to do," Hunter said. "We're going to enjoy this great moment, but we're looking way ahead."
Despite the lack of hitting, this was a signature win. Benoit's emergence as the closer -- which began at this same ballpark in June -- brought stability to the whole bullpen. And the Tigers invested heavily in starting pitching and made it their foundation. They've had the best rotation in the league all season, and on this night their best starter, Scherzer, turned minimum support into the maximum outcome.
With a loss, the Tigers' magic number over Cleveland would have remained at one heading into their open date today preceding the season-ending three-game series in Miami. But now, after the Tigers celebrated, the Minnesota clubhouse needed to clean up that clubhouse fast so it could welcome Thursday night's visitors to Minnesota: the admirable Indians, at last locked into second place but leading for a wild-card spot.
Austin Jackson opened the game with a triple off the right-center fence. With the infield back, Hunter grounded a single into center to score him.
The Tigers never advanced another runner to second base in the seven innings pitched by Kevin Correia, the Twins' best starter this season.
The biggest play of the game came in the Twins' fifth. There were runners on first and second with one out, and the count went full on dangerous Brian Dozier.
Catcher Alex Avila had the confidence to call for Scherzer's slider. Dozier swung and missed. And Avila, in part because Scherzer had been keeping Pedro Florimon close at second, threw out Florimon at third to end the inning. It wasn't that long ago that the Tigers hadn't thrown out a runner stealing for a month; now such a play was the biggest play in the clincher.
That was one of four innings in which the Twins got a runner to scoring position against Scherzer.
"I pitched well with runners on base and executed pitches when I needed to," he said, holding a champagne bottle and a cigar. "I found a way to keep them from scoring, and that was the difference."
On Opening Day, the Tigers began their quest for the Central title with a win at Minnesota. Nearly six months later, they celebrated there. In the words of detective novelist Ross Macdonald, "The case ended where it began."
"We talked in spring training. This was a tough year for the guys because the expectations were so high and it was almost like we were set up to fail. And from Day 1 of spring training I told them …" Leyland had been talking for 13 seconds, and he started to choke up and he struggled to continue. ". . . don't get caught up in the expectations. Get caught up in how we're going to live up to those expectations. And I think that's what they've done.
"And I want to say thank you to our fans. I'm so proud you, of what you've done for our ballclub. And what you've done for me since I've been here. And I just hope that, I just hope that you feel like you're getting your money's worth. Because we try to entertain you. You keep coming out. I can't tell you what you mean to us. It's like a sixth man."
Then he was carried into the locker room, told to jump up and down as he was squirted with champagne. He quickly turned to leave -- but not before moonwalking as he exited.
(c)2013 Detroit Free Press
Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services