Anibal's shutout lifts Tigers to first-place tie

Anibal's shutout lifts Tigers to first-place tie
DETROIT -- This is why the Tigers traded for Anibal Sanchez, for nights like Tuesday. It just took him a while to fit into it.

"That's why the team brings me here, to help the team make the playoffs," Sanchez said after his three-hit shutout in the Tigers' 2-0 win over Royals. "That is what I'm doing. When I get the chance to be on the mound, I'm just going to do my best to pitch games like that."

The American League Central deadlock with the White Sox that resulted from the victory is what the Tigers have been working to set up seemingly forever.

"It is what it is," manager Jim Leyland said. "Then there was eight. We thought all along it was going to be a dogfight, and it is."

The season-long dance between the Tigers and White Sox atop the AL Central is down to eight games over the next eight days. The runaway expectations they took into the season are gone. All they have to do is just play.

This is what Detroit wanted when it was down three games coming out of Chicago last week. The Tigers have won four of seven since then, missing a golden chance to take the division lead on Sunday against Minnesota, but the White Sox have struggled in the same span.

They haven't been atop the division by themselves in two months, but they haven't been more than three games out the whole time. That gap that seemed like a gulf the past couple weeks is finally gone, the Tigers' fate back in their hands. They'll take their chances.

Detroit doesn't have to win by eight games; one game better than Chicago over an eight-game stretch will do.

"I love our chances," catcher Gerald Laird said. "This team's got tremendous talent. One through five, I like our rotation. Our bullpen's strong. We've got two of the best hitters in the game. What's there not to like about this team? ...

"We have an exciting team. We just have to put it all together and catch the ball and we're going to be fine."

They've had that talent all year, of course, which is why the Tigers were expected to score runs aplenty each game. The way their pitching has come together, especially Sanchez, just a few runs can work.

On a night when Royals lefty Bruce Chen pitched well enough to play spoiler once again, Sanchez wouldn't let him. His old teammate, Miguel Cabrera, gave him a hand along the way.

Not only did Sanchez (4-6 with Detroit) retire the first 11 batters in order, he allowed only one ball out of the infield in the process. His fastball, which seemed to languish at times in August, was darting at 95-96 mph, setting up a breaking ball that Kansas City's young, aggressive lineup couldn't seem to resist.

"His curveball was devastating tonight," Royals manager Ned Yost. "The first time around, we had our regular approach, but we were 0-and-2 on everybody. So we looked up and the kid had like 30 strikes and five balls. So let's get after him, and we still couldn't center him up."

That last part was the difference. Sanchez had shown flashes of that form over his past few outings, notably when he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning a week-and-a-half ago in Cleveland. His previous couple starts fell apart abruptly somewhere along the line -- the seventh inning in Cleveland, the fourth inning five days ago against Oakland.

Sanchez had two chances to break this time. Cabrera, his old teammate with the Marlins years ago, took care of one. Sanchez took care of the other.

Cabrera has built an MVP resume carrying the Tigers with his bat for the past month. This was a game he might have won with his glove, which he extended as high as he could towards Salvador Perez's line drive after back-to-back singles gave Kansas City a two-out threat in the fourth.

The ball seemingly hung in the air. When it hit the top of Cabrera's glove, it stuck.

"I was very lucky right there," said Cabrera, allowing himself to laugh about it. "Yeah, it was a good play. It was exciting to catch that ball."

From there, Sanchez held the Royals to an Alcides Escobar bunt single and an Alex Gordon walk, both with two outs in the sixth inning. Faced with another potential jam, this time with All-Star Billy Butler at the plate, Sanchez and Laird set him up looking to back-to-back called strikes, including a breaking ball Sanchez dropped over the plate.

When Sanchez got Butler to swing and miss at another breaking ball, this one in the dirt, he pumped his fist and yelled at the ground. It was easily his strongest show of emotion since the trade.

"Yeah, because that guy is a pretty good hitter," Sanchez said. "With one shot, he can put his team ahead. That strikeout was the key to the game."

It was also the start of his game-ending roll of 10 straight Royals retired, half of them by strikeout to finish with 10 for the game. He hadn't gotten an out past the seventh inning as a Tiger; this time he got them all.

"That's him right here," said Cabrera, remembering his old form from Florida. "He's not going to pitch nine innings every game, but I see the confidence and I see the control. I see everything. When you see a pitcher like that, he's a tough night for hitters."

When the Tigers see Sanchez like that, they have a rotation that looks formidable for the final week.

"We work for the whole season for this moment," Cabrera said. "Hopefully we can stay focused, we can go out there and play hard and try to win."

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.