- 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.

Fister has allowed only four earned runs in his last 44 2-3 innings for an 0.81 ERA over that stretch. He was unfazed after giving up Willingham’s career-best 27th homer leading off the second. David DeJesus followed with a single, and Fister retired the next 17 hitters in order before another single by DeJesus, who played in his 1,000th game.

Fister allowed three hits, struck out five and didn’t walk a batter for the fifth time in nine starts for Detroit.

Valverde finished for his 44th save in as many chances this season and his franchise-record 45th in a row overall.

As the party turned the visiting clubhouse floor into a slip-and-slide of water and ice, Fister stood to the side and watched. What a difference being with Detroit.

The Tigers won for the 23rd time in 28 games dating to Aug. 19 and 25th time in the club’s last 36 road games.

“This is very special to me,” he said. “This is some fun stuff.”

“I just want to party!” yelled pitcher Al Alburquerque as he walked into the plumes of smoke coming from all corners.

Same for Leyland.

The 66-year-old could light up a fresh cigar to celebrate a division title that looked like a longshot mere months ago. The sixth-year skipper sported fresh socks and undershorts a day after Detroit’s winning streak was stopped at 12 games in a 6-1 loss in Thursday night’s series opener.

He’ll surely be changing clothes again after a bubbly celebration in the visiting clubhouse at the Coliseum.

These Tigers have been on such a roll there has been no need for scoreboard watching — even if Leyland has been doing so since April. It’s been quite a late-season surge, considering Detroit trailed the Indians by eight games and was four games under .500 on May 3.

On Friday, the offense eventually did enough to back Fister.

“We’re just a very talented and resilient team,” Avila said. “At that (early) point in the season, we knew we just had to keep playing our game and we’d get there.”

Detroit missed chances in the fourth and fifth innings after the game was delayed for 16 minutes before the top of the fourth because of an outage to the stadium lights in the Coliseum.

This is the second straight year a visiting team has clinched the division in Oakland. Reigning AL champion Texas did it last season and visits next week.

“It’s not something you want to do,” manager Bob Melvin said. “We would have liked to have won that game in the ninth inning. If you can have them win it in a different fashion, whether it’s going in the clubhouse after we beat them and somebody else losing, that’s how you’d like to do it.”

NOTES: Willingham hit 26 homers in 2006 with Florida. … Cabrera reached base four times, with a singles and three walks. … A’s 2B Jemile Weeks returned to the lineup after missing two games with leg cramps. He batted in the No. 2 hole for the first time in his career. “I don’t want him to feel he has to push it right away,” manager Bob Melvin said. … LHP Gio Gonzalez starts Saturday looking to improve to 5-1 over a six-start stretch. … A wedding took place in front of home plate less than an hour before first pitch. … It was also “Star Wars” night. … A man on a treadmill in left field failed to run a marathon before the game ended.

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