Despite loss, Tigers look ahead in playoff chase

'We're still right in the thick of things,' Verlander says

Despite loss, Tigers look ahead in playoff chase

DETROIT -- The Comerica Park grounds crew spent the waning hours of Sunday afternoon tending to the infield after kids ran the bases. The crew did not prepare the field for winter, despite the Tigers' struggles to round the bases themselves over the weekend.

The Tigers' season isn't over yet, not even after losing, 3-1, to the Orioles on Sunday to drop two out of three and lose ground in the American League Central and Wild Card races. But with three weeks to go, there's work to do, and not by the grounds crew.

"I mean, if you win two and someone loses two in the next two days, this isn't even a question," manager Brad Ausmus said, referring to Detroit's deficit in the Wild Card. "To start worrying about whether we're hamstrung two games out on Sept. 11, I think is -- no offense - but not even a good question.

"We're going to come back and try to win. We've got a shot at making the playoffs."

The difference is in the level of control. This weekend represented the Tigers' opportunity to control their fate against the team holding the second Wild Card spot. It would have taken a sweep from either side to truly swing the race, but by taking two of three, Baltimore added a game to its lead.

The good news for the Tigers is that the Orioles return to the scrum that is the AL East race. The O's play 17 of their final 20 games against division opponents, including seven against the division-leading Red Sox, three against the Blue Jays, with whom they are tied for the AL Wild Card spots, and three against the Yankees, who are tied with the Tigers at two games back. The more the East teams beat each other, the more the Tigers can advance with a strong stretch.

Detroit also returns to divisional play, but with a less cluttered field for its next 17 games, including seven each against the last-place Twins and division-leading Indians. The latter has loomed as one final shot to make a run for the AL Central, but with a seven-game gap, the Tigers would have to sweep those games to draw even without help. To make matters close, the Tigers would likely need at least five wins in those seven games.

"It's more damaging in the division, there's no question," Ausmus said of the past week's defeats. "It's much more difficult to make up. The upside is, you play [the Indians] seven times. So in that sense, we have more control over that."

The games against the Twins loom as a bigger opportunity, including a four-game series that begins Monday night at Comerica Park. Detroit has won 10 of 12 against Minnesota, including a three-game sweep at Target Field three weeks ago.

However, the last time the Twins came to town, they took two out of three in July, losses that loom large as the season winds down. It's a reminder that nothing on the schedule is automatic -- neither the optimism of a friendly schedule nor the doom and gloom of disappointing results in early September.

"We're still in it," Justin Verlander said. "Obviously, we would have liked to win two of three [against Baltimore]. It didn't happen. Turn the page, and hopefully we will play well against the Twins. It's easy to say, 'Yeah, this hurt.' But we're still right in the thick of things. So we will see."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.