DETROIT Manager Jim Leyland never expected the Detroit Tigers to be in the playoffs in his first season.
Neither did anyone else.
Even after they were 59-29 at the All-Star break, even after they were 76-36 with a season-high 10-game lead in the AL Central Aug. 7, most baseball observers expected the Tigers to tank.
They were on the verge of a historic collapse two weeks ago.
But suddenly the Tigers started hitting again, started winning again. They have captured eight of their last 11, including last night s 4-3 victory over Toronto at Comerica Park.
Three days after clinching their first playoff berth in 19 years, the Tigers have their sights set on winning the division title.
They hold a one-game lead over Minnesota with five games to go.
In essence, it s a two-game advantage the Tigers will win a tiebreaker with the Twins based on their 11-8 edge in the regular season.
The Tigers hope to finish with the best record in baseball they are tied with the New York Yankees at 95-62 and secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
We want to win the division, Leyland said, and we re going to do everything we can to win it.
When this season began, Leyland s mission was simple reverse the Tigers losing ways. But the Perrysburg native knew it wouldn t be easy.
After all, the organization he had spent his first 18 years of professional baseball with as a catcher, coach and manager had been dreadful.
The Tigers had suffered through 12 consecutive losing seasons and hadn t won a World Series in 22 years.
Worse yet, they were 186-300 the previous three years and lost an AL-record 119 games in 2003 under 1984 World Series hero Alan Trammell.
I didn t think we d be in the playoffs this year and I d be lying if I said that I did, he said. I thought we might be next year.
The 61-year-old Leyland, a proven winner in Pittsburgh, where he orchestrated three playoff appearances in the early 1990s, and in Florida, where he won the World Series in 1997, quickly put a solid product on the field in Detroit.
The Tigers have four starting pitchers with double-digit wins, including Kenny Rogers (17-6), rookie Justin Verlander (17-9), last night s winner Jeremy Bonderman (14-8) and Nate Robertson (13-12).
Leyland plans to lift Verlander from his scheduled start Saturday and may do the same with Bonderman Sunday.
Leyland wants to have his rotation set for the start of playoffs Tuesday, whether the Tigers host Oakland as the division winner or face the Yankees in the Bronx as the wild-card entrant.
Don t expect many surprises on the Tigers 25-man postseason roster.
Leyland plans to carry 11 pitchers. That means Rogers, Verlander, Bonderman and Robertson will be joined by Wil Ledezma, Jamie Walker, Fernando Rodney, Jason Grilli, Joel Zumaya, Todd Jones and either Zach Miner or Andrew Miller.
The 14 position players likely will include Sean Casey, Pudge Rodriguez, Placido Polanco, Craig Monroe, Carlos Guillen, Brandon Inge, Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez, Marcus Thames, Neifi Perez, Omar Infante, Vance Wilson, Alexis Gomez and Chris Shelton.
I ve been lucky, Leyland said. This is my 15th year of managing and I ve been to playoffs five times. I m happy with that.
Leyland just might take a victory lap if the Tigers win the division.
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