Tigers ready for 'Septober' showdown with Royals

With clubs neck and neck in AL Central, upcoming weekend series has playoff feel

Tigers ready for 'Septober' showdown with Royals

KANSAS CITY -- Torii Hunter has a name for this -- playoff-race baseball with an October atmosphere. It is not postseason baseball. Nothing matches the playoffs, says the man who signed with the Tigers two years ago with an eye toward his first World Series berth. But the implications are nonetheless huge.

"We call it 'Septober,'" Hunter said last week, shortly after the Tigers' last division showdown with the Royals.

"When you're talking about playoff atmosphere in May and June, no chance. You've got a lot of time [then], and you try to make adjustments. But right now, the adjustments should have been made. You have to go out there and you've got to play. You know you're going to get out sometime, but you just have to focus a little more. Septober is nothing to play with."

The Tigers and Royals have reached the pinnacle of Septober -- three games here in the next-to-last weekend of the regular season, a half-game apart atop the American League Central standings. It's not a playoff series, Hunter insists, particularly since neither team can be eliminated by the other team taking two out of three. Considering Kansas City will resume a suspended game Monday with a two-run deficit in extra innings, Detroit could lose two out of three and still be tied for first place by the time the club throws another pitch Monday night at home against the White Sox.

Still, this is the last chance for either team to directly affect the other's fortunes, to check the other by looking at the opposite dugout instead of the out-of-town scoreboard.

"Every win from here on out is very important," Hunter said, "and every mistake that you make is going to get magnified. This is Septober, baby. You've got to come with it."

The Tigers know all about Septober, having been through a few late-season showdowns in recent years. When they've had their chances to make up ground or open room in head-to-head fashion, they've usually risen to the challenge:

• In 2012, they won five of seven from the White Sox from Aug. 31-Sept. 17, keeping Chicago close before erasing a three-game deficit over the final 15 games.

• In 2011, they won nine straight from the White Sox and Indians over two weeks in early September, building a double-digit lead and setting up a clinching game with just under two weeks to go.

• In 2009, the Tigers went 3-4 against the Twins to try to stunt their comeback attempt. They went 8-11 against the rest of their schedule from Labor Day, turning a seven-game lead into a division deadlock and a tiebeaker loss that still haunts the franchise.

Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello have been around for all of those games. Verlander will start Friday's series opener. Porcello gets Sunday's finale. Cabrera's September turnaround makes him the leading offensive factor.

Verlander was a rookie in 2006 when the Tigers tried in vain to hold off the Twins. A year later, he was one of the Tigers' starters the Indians beat up during a three-game sweep in Cleveland in mid-September that all but eliminated Detroit.

Much like 2009, the Tigers' struggles against spoilers -- in this case, losing two out of three in Minnesota -- put them in their current spot. Their experience could get them out.

"Hey, you'd like to be up six or seven and be clinching right now," Verlander said, "but sometimes I think that works against you. I think it's maybe better for a team to be playing meaningful games coming down the wire going into the playoffs, and not just kind of coasting. I've been on both sides of it, and I really feel like those intense games all the way through September really, really help you when it comes to the postseason."

The Royals don't have that experience, but they arguably don't have the pressure, either. When they lost two out of three earlier this month in Detroit -- falling to 5-11 against the Tigers this season -- then lost the division lead after that, they were supposed to be done.

Two days ago, they almost fell 2 1/2 games down. Now, they not only have a chance, they have momentum after scoring five runs on White Sox ace Chris Sale on Wednesday.

"This is why we play the game," Royals ace James Shields said. "This is why we grew up playing the game is for moments like this. And I think if we relax and have fun, we're going to play the baseball that we know how to play."

It was Shields who prevented a Tigers sweep in Detroit, pitching seven shutout innings. He'll pitch the middle game in this series, this time opposite Max Scherzer. All the pitchers, in fact, are the same.

There are no surprise adjustments the second time around, Verlander said. These teams have seen each other so often that the guessing games are done.

None have that more than Verlander, who will face Kansas City for the sixth time this season.

"I don't think strategy ever goes out the window," Verlander said, "but I think it's always execution. You can have a horrible strategy and throw it right in a guy's happy zone, but if you really execute it -- if it's at the knees on the black or wherever it may be -- it's still not going to be easy to hit.

"These are must-win games. It's a must-win series. It's obviously the biggest series of the year. This is a team that's right there, and if we don't take care of business, can beat us. That's exciting."

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.