OAKLAND — Newcomer Doug Fister pitched the Detroit Tigers to the AL Central title on Friday night, beating the Oakland Athletics 3-1 to secure the club’s first division title in nearly a quarter-century.
Fister (9-13) retired 17 straight during one stretch to win his third straight start and fifth consecutive decision, and Wilson Betemit hit a go-ahead triple off Trevor Cahill (11-14) in the sixth. Don Kelly hit a solo home run in the seventh.
"This is special to me because a lot of people didn’t think I’d be managing the Tigers next year," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "We were fortunate, because we were the team this year that met the challenge. We were almost spotless."
Detroit is headed to the playoffs for the first time since winning the AL wild card in 2006 and losing to St. Louis in the World Series. The Tigers (88-63) had not finished on top since winning the AL East in 1987, three years after their last World Series championship.
"It’s been pretty much magical this whole second half," Tigers pitcher Phil Coke said. "We’ve gone out every day and handled our business. We’re all hungry. We’re all ready for this."
When Josh Willingham grounded out to third to end it, the victorious Tigers sprinted out of their dugout. Closer Jose Valverde pumped both arms, then turned as catcher Alex Avila jumped into his embrace.
Leyland stood some 10 feet from the pitcher’s mound and waited for a hug from each of his players.
New faces and old, Detroit made all the right moves.
In the last year, team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski acquired three players from within the division to put his team in position for a sensational September.
Delmon Young came to Detroit in a three-player deal with the Twins on Aug. 15, veteran infielder Betemit from Kansas City for a pair of prospects in July and Jhonny Peralta at the trade deadline last year from Cleveland.
Then there’s the reliable Fister, who improved to 6-1 since he joined the Tigers in a six-player trade with Seattle on July 30. He is 5-0 over his last six starts and has given Leyland another front-line starter behind AL Cy Young Award contender Justin Verlander.
Fister has allowed only four earned runs in his last 44 2-3 innings for an 0.81 ERA over that stretch. He was unfazed after giving up Willingham’s career-best 27th homer leading off the second. After David DeJesus followed with a single, Fister retired the next 17 hitters in order before another single by DeJesus, who played in his 1,000th game.
Fister allowed three hits, struck out five and didn’t walk a batter for the fifth time in his nine starts for Detroit.
Valverde finished for his 44th save in as many chances this season and his franchise-record 45th in a row overall.
Detroit won for the 23rd time in 28 games dating to Aug. 19 and 25th time in the club’s last 36 road games.
At last, the 66-year-old Leyland could light up a fresh cigar to celebrate a division title that looked like a longshot mere months ago. The sixth-year skipper sported fresh socks and undershorts a day after Detroit’s winning streak was stopped at 12 games in a 6-1 loss in Thursday night’s series opener.
He’ll surely be changing clothes again after a bubbly celebration in the visiting clubhouse at the Coliseum.
These Tigers have been on such a roll lately there has been no need for scoreboard watching — even if Leyland has been doing so since April. It’s been quite a late-season surge, too, considering Detroit trailed the Indians by eight games and was four games under .500 on May 3.
On Friday, the offense eventually did enough to back Fister.
Detroit missed chances in the fourth and fifth innings after the game was delayed for 16 minutes before the top of the fourth because of an outage to the stadium lights in the Coliseum.
With one out in the fifth and runners on second and third, third baseman Eric Sogard lunged to his right to stop Delmon Young’s sharp grounder and Sogard’s momentum allowed him to reach out and tag Ramon Santiago, who was off the base. Cahill later loaded the bases with an intentional walk to Miguel Cabrera before retiring Victor Martinez on a grounder.
Betemit was replaced at third by Brandon Inge in the bottom of the seventh after he came up limping after being thrown out at the plate by left fielder Hideki Matsui on a double play to end the sixth.
This is the second straight year a visiting team has clinched the division in Oakland. Reigning AL champion Texas did it last season and visits next week.
NOTES: Willingham hit 26 homers in 2006 with Florida. ... Cabrera reached base four times, with a singles and three walks. ... A’s 2B Jemile Weeks returned to the lineup after missing two games with leg cramps. He batted in the No. 2 hole for the first time in his career. "I don’t want him to feel he has to push it right away," manager Bob Melvin said. ... LHP Gio Gonzalez starts Saturday looking to improve to 5-1 over a six-start stretch. ... A wedding took place in front of home plate less than an hour before first pitch. ... It was also "Star Wars" night. ... A man on a treadmill in left field failed to run a marathon before the game ended.