- Associated Press - Saturday, September 17, 2011

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Away from the madness of a cigar party for a moment, Jim Leyland nearly cried.

For everybody who figured there was no way he would manage the Tigers beyond this season, for all those who couldn’t envision a comeback after Detroit fell behind by eight games in early May, Leyland sat in his office puffing on his own celebratory stogie, a black “2011 MLB Playoffs” hat on his head.

Detroit is AL Central champion.

Newcomer Doug Fister pitched the Tigers to the division title on Friday night, beating the Oakland Athletics 3-1 to secure a first-place finish for Detroit for the first time in nearly a quarter-century.


Fister (9-13) retired 17 straight during one stretch to win his third straight start and fifth consecutive decision, and Wilson Betemit hit a go-ahead triple off Trevor Cahill (11-14) in the sixth. Don Kelly had a solo homer in the seventh after an earlier RBI single.

“We were seven games behind the Cleveland Indians at one point and people weren’t really talking about us at all,” Leyland said. “They deserved it. They worked hard. They stuck together. There are special moments you can’t put a price tag on and you just enjoy them. I’m an emotional guy, we all know that.”

Detroit is headed to the playoffs for the first time since winning the AL wild card in 2006 and losing to St. Louis in the World Series. The Tigers (88-63) had not finished on top since winning the AL East in 1987, three years after their last World Series championship.

“It’s been pretty much magical this whole second half,” reliever Phil Coke said. “We’ve gone out every day and handled our business. We’re all hungry. We’re all ready for this.”

When Josh Willingham grounded out to third to end it, the victorious Tigers sprinted out of their dugout. Closer Jose Valverde pumped both arms, then turned as catcher Alex Avila jumped into his embrace.

Leyland stood some 10 feet from the pitcher’s mound and waited for a hug from each of his players.

New faces and old, Detroit made all the right moves. This month alone there have been two sweeps of the White Sox, one of Minnesota and another at Cleveland.

“I have a very special satisfaction. A lot of people probably didn’t think I’d be managing the Tigers next year,” Leyland said. “We were fortunate, because we were the team this year that met the challenge. We were almost spotless.”

In the last year, general manager Dave Dombrowski acquired three players from within the division to put his team in position for a sensational September.

Delmon Young came to Detroit in a three-player deal with the Twins on Aug. 15, veteran infielder Betemit from Kansas City for a pair of prospects in July and Jhonny Peralta at the trade deadline last year from Cleveland.

Then there’s the reliable Fister, who improved to 6-1 since he joined the Tigers in a six-player trade with Seattle on July 30. He is 5-0 over his last six starts and has given Leyland another front-line starter behind AL Cy Young Award contender Justin Verlander.

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