Tigers' loss to Twins tightens Central race

Tigers' loss to Twins tightens Central race

Tigers' loss to Twins tightens Central race
MINNEAPOLIS -- Drew Smyly had a harder time getting to Target Field on Friday than he seemingly had once he took the mound there. Smyly got lost in the Skywalks of downtown Minneapolis, he said, until he finally made his way back to the team hotel.

"I got very turned around," Smyly said. "I was struggling at first. I didn't know which way to go, but finally, I found it."

If that maze sounds like the American League Central race right now, it's understandable. With five games left and the Tigers' lead down to a single game after Friday's 4-2 loss to the Twins, the nervous weekend Detroit fans were anticipating is on.

The White Sox, who began the day two games back, beat the Rays, 3-1, at U.S. Cellular Field.

"This year nothing comes easy for us, it seems like," catcher Gerald Laird said. "We've been through a lot with injuries and the ups and downs of playing good baseball at times and not playing good baseball. It's just one of those things where we know it's going to be a dogfight to the end."

Like a confused tourist on the Skywalk, just when the Tigers think they've found the direct path to their goal, they run into another obstacle. On Friday they found two: Scott Diamond -- again -- and Ryan Doumit.

"Every game's going to count," Laird said. "We knew the White Sox weren't going to go away. We've just got to come back, bounce back tomorrow and get a win and give us a chance to win the series."

With Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez taking the mound the next two days, they have the pitching for it. But Smyly gave them the pitching for it on Friday. The way this division race is unfolding, that might end up being the one blessing they get out of a frustrating evening.

Smyly started in place of Max Scherzer, who continues to deal with soreness in his right shoulder. If Scherzer can't make his next scheduled start in Wednesday's regular-season finale at Kansas City, it will be Smyly's outing. The Tigers' postseason berth could hinge on that game.

This situation bears a little resemblance to 2009, when the Tigers had to go with then-20-year-old rookie Rick Porcello in their AL Central tiebreaker against the Twins. Friday's performance gave every reason to believe that Smyly, a 23-year-old rookie in just his second pro season, can handle it.

Smyly gave Detroit a chance on Friday, holding down Minnesota's lefty-loaded lineup. His only hits were third-inning singles to Eduardo Escobar and Denard Span, and he stranded both by fanning Joe Mauer for his fourth strikeout through the Twins' first 12 batters.

"I know what you have to do up here to get wins, and our starting pitcher did enough of that tonight for us," manager Jim Leyland said.

So, however, did Diamond.

Before the game, Leyland talked about his hitters making adjustments against the left-hander after he'd thrown seven innings of four-hit, two-run ball five days earlier at Comerica Park. When Diamond adjusted as well, however, he nearly duplicated his pitching line.

"Our mentality going into it was [to] just keep that same mentality we had in Detroit, just attack and work the outside half and mix up speeds," Diamond said. "When we saw them making the adjustment, that's when we started to shift ours."

For the first seven innings, in fact, Diamond shut down Detroit's offense, his lone threat thwarted when Ben Revere threw out Miguel Cabrera by at least three strides at the plate on Delmon Young's two-out single in the sixth with Jhonny Peralta on deck.

Cabrera had started the two-out rally with a line drive that looked like it was headed out before bouncing high off the right-field wall. Cabrera ended up at first base when Revere fielded the ball off the hop and fired quickly to second, and he looked frustrated at second after Prince Fielder's ensuing single. Rounding third, however, he looked limited.

Cabrera said afterward that his right ankle, which had limited him last month, was not hampering him.

Smyly retired the final nine batters he faced before Span's groundout leading off the sixth inning pushed his pitch count to 93. That was enough for Leyland, who went to Phil Coke to finish the sixth.

Coke started the seventh with a Justin Morneau ground ball, but it skirted past Fielder for his 11th error of the year. Coke recovered from a 2-0 count to get back to even against Doumit, but he paid for a fastball that Doumit sent out for his 17th home run of the year.

That looked like it would be enough for Diamond, but once again an infield error started a rally, this one a Trevor Plouffe miscue putting Austin Jackson on ahead of Omar Infante's fourth Tigers home run this season.

Octavio Dotel had finished the seventh inning for Detroit but felt soreness in his biceps. Rather than risk worsening it and losing him for the stretch run, Leyland went to Brayan Villarreal, who walked the bases loaded before paying for a first-pitch strike to Doumit.

One of the walks was intentional, a free pass to Mauer after Revere had sacrificed Span to second. Villarreal's ensuing 3-0 count and five-pitch walk to Morneau, however, was the killer, leaving him no room to fall behind Doumit.

"I thought about calling a breaking ball, but my thought is, 'I have to get ahead right here,'" Laird said. "If I call a breaking ball and he falls behind, sometimes it takes a couple of pitches to get his fastball command back. ... I'm thinking, 'If he makes a good fastball pitch down and away at 97 mph, the guy's going to hit a ground ball.' Unfortunately, he just got it up a little bit, and Doumit made a good swing on it."

Doumit jumped on a first-pitch 98-mph fastball and sent it into the gap in right-center field, scoring two.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. 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.