They haven't found a way to follow that one in recent years. With six road games left and two wins in either Minnesota or Miami being enough to clinch a third consecutive division title, they won't bemoan their predicament.
"We have to go out and win a couple games. It's that simple," Leyland said after closing the home schedule with Sunday's 6-3 loss to the White Sox. "There's no secret to what we have to do. We're packed up."
The closest to a storybook ending for the Tigers on Sunday was the annual rookie ritual. One prospect after another donned a fairy-tale character costume as they filed out of Comerica Park and headed toward the airport and a trip to Minneapolis.
This was one flight they were hoping was delayed.
The team plane was prepared for a late departure if the Tigers clinched on Sunday, allowing players and coaches to celebrate in front of sellout crowd of 41,749. They needed a win over Chicago and a loss from second-place Cleveland to the Astros, owners of baseball's worst record.
They got neither. As a result, their magic number remains at two, their lead in the division whittled to five games with six to play. Even if they lose out now, they're guaranteed at least a tie for a Wild Card spot, which would require a playoff.
The Tigers can clinch at least a Wild Card spot and a division tie Monday if they beat the Twins. With the Indians off Monday, the soonest Detroit can clinch a division title is Tuesday.
The Tigers are used to this. They clinched last year's division crown in Kansas City to start the final series of the season. Two years ago, they clinched in mid-September in Oakland. They clinched a World Series berth in Detroit last year, sending the city into a frenzy, but haven't clinched a postseason spot on home ground since 1987, when they swept past the Blue Jays in the final series of the regular season at Tiger Stadium.
"We thought we were going to complete it here," said Anibal Sanchez, "but Cleveland, they played pretty big. They're in first place or second place for the Wild Card. They play hard. They keep us playing hard for two more games.
"We need to win. At the end, we need to win the games we need to clinch and get ready for the playoffs."
Even if Sanchez had delivered a win, Cleveland's win ruled out the possibility of clinching at home. Instead, he struggled on his way to his first loss since July 19.
After Detroit's biggest ninth-inning comeback in 66 years Saturday night, nothing about Sunday's matchup suggested the Tigers would be looking at another big deficit. Sanchez entered his next-to-last start of the season leading the league in ERA, having allowed two runs or fewer in 10 of his previous 12 starts, and unbeaten in his last 11 starts. He awaited a Chicago lineup without veteran sluggers Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn.
Instead of familiar foes, it was former teammate Avisail Garcia left to haunt the Tigers. He batted cleanup, opened the scoring with a two-out RBI single up the middle in the first inning and then padded the lead with a bloop RBI single down the left-field line in the fifth. The latter hit plated Conor Gillaspie, who blistered a two-run triple to straightaway center field a few pitches earlier to move the White Sox in front.
"I think for me, it was just one pitch, one pitch against Gillaspie," Sanchez said. "He hit it hard, he brought in a couple runs and then Avisail, he got a good game today. So I think in the end, you have to give credit to them. They played hard in the situation they're in right now. And we need to continue. We need to take that second step."
Sanchez (14-8) lasted just five innings, allowing four runs on eight hits with two walks and six strikeouts. On the heels of Saturday's six-run ninth inning comeback, it was the example of Leyland's oft-turned phrase: Momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher.
"And today, one of our aces just wasn't sharp," Leyland said.
Meanwhile, what looked like a favorable matchup for Tigers hitters against White Sox rookie Erik Johnson fizzled out despite nine hits over 6 2/3 innings. Prince Fielder's 25th home run tied the game in the fourth, but Johnson (2-2) stranded runners on the corners later that inning to halt the Tigers' momentum.
"I thought that I mixed well," Johnson said. "There's a lot of great hitters over there, but I threw all four pitches for strikes today. I thought that helped me out."
The Tigers had a 6-1 deficit when they showed hints of making one more comeback, rallying for three singles to load the bases against Johnson in the seventh. Austin Jackson drove in Alex Avila with a sacrifice fly, but lefty reliever Donnie Veal -- who kept Saturday's game tied into extra innings -- halted this rally with a lineout from pinch-hitter Torii Hunter.
Two more hits in the ninth created some final hints at a rally, pushing the potential tying run to the on-deck circle with Ramon Santiago's RBI groundout in the ninth.
That's where the fairy tale ended.
"We get a little rally going and you think the same thing can happen again," said Don Kelly, who played third base in place of injured Miguel Cabrera. "But we just came up a little short."