On Monday, they took a big step closer to clinching it. After going essentially three games without a hit with runners in scoring position, they came up with three RBI singles from the sixth inning on to pull out a Rick Porcello pitching duel over Mariners left-hander Joe Saunders for a 4-2 Tigers victory.
It wasn't dominant, but it was Detroit's fifth win in six games. With Royals ace James Shields sending the second-place Indians to defeat in Kansas City, the Tigers' magic number in the American League Central dropped to seven.
"We control our own destiny," said Victor Martinez, whose sixth-inning single broke open what had been a 1-1 game. "We don't need to worry about anybody else. We're just focusing day by day, game by game, pitch by pitch. If everybody does their part, we'll be OK."
That was partly the point of Hunter's talk with his teammates last week in Chicago, after Chris Sale and the White Sox had dropped Detroit's lead to 4 1/2 games. Hunter didn't want them to tighten up thinking about the standings, didn't want them worrying about Cleveland at their heels.
"It was all positive, just to rally the troops," he said.
Two of their five wins since then have come behind Porcello, the starting pitcher in the 20-4 loss in Boston two weeks ago. He struggled to retire left-handed hitters in that game and paid for it with three home runs. He has allowed two runs on 12 hits over 15 innings since.
"I think as a ballclub we're really coming on strong here," Porcello said. "Guys are coming in with energy. I mean, it's September. Everybody's had a long season, but everybody's coming in with good energy and we're focused and we're playing good hard baseball."
Much like he did six days earlier against the White Sox, Porcello faced a lineup that featured young, aggressive hitters, and he used it against them. On Monday, however, he did it in a completely different fashion.
Against Chicago, Porcello pitched with a big lead early and induced one quick out after another. On Monday, Porcello sent down Seattle swinging, and ended up with double-digit strikeouts for just the second time in his career. The way Saunders flustered Detroit's hitters, it's what Porcello had to do to match him.
Porcello went to his changeup and curveball time and again, keeping a Mariners lineup with seven left-handed and switch-hitters off balance to set up a fastball he could locate for strikes. Manager Jim Leyland said it might be the best changeup he has seen from his young sinkerballer all season.
"He was using his changeup early in the game," catcher Alex Avila said. "Then we went off to the curveball as the game went on in the middle towards end of the game. The sinker was always going to be there."
The curveball has been a big pitch for Porcello at different times this season. The difference Monday was consistency.
"My breaking ball, I think, was the biggest key to the success tonight," Porcello said. "Alex did a really good job of calling it in the right situations to throw it. We were in sync the whole night and I think that rhythm we got going was big."
Seven of Seattle's first 19 hitters struck out, three of them against the breaking ball, before Porcello struck out the side in the sixth inning to strand two on base.
The groundouts Porcello usually thrives on, evidenced by baseball's third-highest groundball/flyball ratio this year, were hard to find. Just four of his 18 outs came on the ground. Instead, Porcello's 10 strikeouts fell one shy of his career high set against the Pirates on May 28.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge was in Cleveland when Porcello was a rookie in 2009. He sees the maturation process.
"He's more of a complete pitcher now than he was three or four years ago when he was younger," Wedge said. "He just has more weapons."
The only scoring damage against Porcello came from a hanging slider to rookie outfielder Abraham Almonte, who sent it out to right for his second home run of the year. That was enough to keep the Mariners in the game for most of the evening behind Saunders.
Like a few other lefty starters to have faced Detroit recently, Saunders limited his early damage and got rolling, allowing a first-inning run on a wild pitch before settling in. He retired five batters in the first two innings with a runner in scoring position, stretching Detroit's hitless streak in those situations to 0-for-19 since Prince Fielder's fifth-inning RBI single Friday night against Kansas City.
A two-out rally in the sixth, fueled in part by Fielder's bloop single following a Miguel Cabrera walk, provided Detroit its first opportunity since those early innings. Martinez's single down the right-field line allowed Cabrera to jog home from second, avoiding a throw when Almonte struggled to pick up the ball. Omar Infante plated Fielder from third with a line-drive single to left.
"I was just making sure that he brings the ball up," Martinez said. "He's got a pretty good two-seamer and I just want to make sure that he brings the ball up."
Saunders (11-15) entered Monday allowing a .341 batting average and .964 OPS to right-handed hitters on the season. Fielder's single, however, bucked his trend against lefties, who were batting just .220 against him.
Hunter added an insurance run in the eighth with a two-out single through the middle off Seattle's former closer Tom Wilhelmsen.