DETROIT -- After dropping their previous two series, the Tigers entered Monday's four-game set against the lowly Minnesota Twins well aware that they couldn't afford to keep slipping -- especially against an opponent they had beaten in 10 of their past 12 meetings.
Monday's game was the Tigers' first of 17 straight against American League Central teams, and a 4-2 win was a good sign for Detroit. The Tigers got a strong pitching performance from young lefty Daniel Norris, huge homers from veterans Ian Kinsler and Miguel Cabrera and key hustle plays from Andrew Romine and Jose Iglesias to show that they were not looking past the Twins, who entered the game 52-91.
With the AL Central-leading Cleveland Indians next on the schedule, this series had trap potential. But Detroit managed to outlast the Twins and pull back within one game of the Baltimore Orioles in the dogfight for the second wild-card playoff spot.
It began with arguably the best start of Daniel Norris' MLB career, in which he allowed just two runs on five hits with two walks and struck out a career-high 11 batters, all on swinging strikes. It ended with a flourish, as back-to-back nail-biter plays at the plate in the seventh, a deep blast from Cabrera in the eighth and a white-knuckle ninth inning sealed the win.
Manager Brad Ausmus described Romine as one of the "unsung heroes" of the team when asked about the utility player scoring the tying run by motoring home from first on Jose Iglesias' seventh-inning double. The play was upheld after a nerve-wracking review that lasted 78 seconds, likely aided by the haze of dirt that clouded the tangle of cleats and gloves at the plate.
"He doesn't get the 10-year, $200 million contract, but he's the type of guy that makes any team he's on better," Ausmus said. "I'm never surprised when he contributes."
Afterward, Romine and third-base coach Dave Clark, who waived him home, confirmed that they were thinking the same thing on the play.
"We were thinking we have three hits off these guys through seven innings, or whatever it was. We haven't had many chances to score," Romine said. "I was going, pretty much not anticipating him stopping me. I saw him wave me, which was a confirmation that, yeah, we're going, we've got to. We may not really have another chance, so we were on the same page."
It was the first of two plays at the plate that inning -- both executed with speed and crafty slides -- that allowed the Tigers to take a 3-2 lead heading into the eighth. Iglesias followed up Romine's play with one of his own, a headfirst slide to score the go-ahead run on a shallow sacrifice fly from Kinsler.
"The slide that Jose made was ridiculous. That was a really, really, really good slide," said Kinsler, who hit his 39th career leadoff home run, tied for seventh in MLB history. "You know, all out, didn't really care about what was going to happen to his body, just went headfirst with everything he had."
Cabrera tacked on an insurance run in the eighth inning, and closer Francisco Rodriguez recorded his 41st save. That left the Tigers feeling optimistic about exerting control over their fate.
"Leaving spring training, if someone says you have a chance to go to the playoffs and win entering September, you're going to take it. So we're in a good spot, and it's getting down to the end," Kinsler said. "You can no longer say it's a long season. Every game is extremely important, especially the situation we're in, so tonight was a big win, and hopefully we can get another one tomorrow."