They'll go into Wednesday with a chance to reach the .500 mark for the first time since May 15. That date also was the last time they were within two games over the division lead until Tuesday, when three straight Tigers wins and three straight White Sox losses put Cleveland in first place and Detroit within sight.
Leyland still couldn't enjoy it, because he had to worry about closer Jose Valverde's health after he injured his wrist warming up in the bottom of the eighth inning, forcing Phil Coke to close out the ninth. But he'll take it.
"You try to win as many games as you can, because that's the only salvation," Leyland said.
It's tough for a pitcher to play the mean role on a team, because they're not everyday players. But as mean streaks go, it's tough to find stronger ones than Justin Verlander in a jam. He has had meaner nights than Tuesday, when he fanned three Cardinals over seven innings. Still, as stinginess in the clutch goes, there might not be any better.
"As a starting pitcher, you can have somebody who competes and [is a jerk] on the mound," Verlander said. "And I think that's me."
It took a while for the Cardinals to get it out of him. He spent most of the night quietly getting through on early contact, retiring 10 straight batters from the first inning through the fourth, with only one strikeout in the bunch.
It wasn't flashy, but it was efficient. His first turn through the Cardinals' lineup lasted just 28 pitches, including 10-pitch innings in the first and second. He came into the sixth inning with just 60 pitches, 42 of them for strikes.
"I was trying to be economical," Verlander said. "That's why you saw a lot of 91-92 [mph fastballs]. My guys gave me a four-, five-run lead. I'm not trying to go out there and strike out anybody. I'm just trying to get some quick innings and allow myself to get deeper in the game and prepare us for the rest of the series."
Verlander didn't really have to turn it up until the seventh. Four Cardinals walks out of his final 10 batters brought it out of him.
"We put a little pressure on him late, but couldn't get the big hit," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We fought him."
Yet when Verlander needed to dial up his fastball to triple digits as the Cards rallied in the seventh, helped in part by Quintin Berry's two-base error in left field, he had it.
Once Allen Craig geared up for the fastball as the potential go-ahead run with the bases loaded in the seventh, Verlander gave him the changeup. When Craig fouled that off, Verlander came back with the slider as Craig swung and missed.
Mean or not, it was nasty.
"One of the best sliders I've thrown. Ever," Verlander said.
The 28-pitch seventh finished Verlander for the night. The runs produced while he was cruising earlier provided the cushion to make him a winner.
Two RBI singles from Delmon Young and a two-run double from Austin Jackson fueled Detroit's outburst off Lance Lynn, whose five runs allowed over five innings marked the worst outing of his breakout 2012 season.
If there was a dirtball in the bunch, though, it was Ramon Santiago, the veteran utility infielder who has taken back the majority share of the starts at second base. When Brennan Boesch and Jhonny Peralta started the second-inning rally with back-to-back singles, Santiago's bunt single loaded the bases.
The goal was to simply advance the runners when Leyland called for it. Santiago, who had struggled with bunts all season, pushed a bunt to third that had David Freese scrambling to the bag and Lynn with nothing more than an off-balance throw.
"He bunted it further than I thought," Freese said. "It's obviously a ball that I have to read better and go get. There's a lot of factors with it, but it's definitely a ball, when you look back on it, that was critical."
Jackson's double came two batters later.
Santiago scored the Tigers' final run in the sixth after taking an 0-2 pitch off his elbow to lead off the inning.
If Leyland wanted role players, he had them. More importantly, he wanted the win.