Tigers clinch AL Central, Miguel Cabrera hits AL-leading 44th home run (Video)

David Brown

Miguel Cabrera slugged another big home run in pursuit of the Triple Crown, then he sang and danced with his teammates and his toddler-sized daughter. Jim Leyland choked back tears, expressing pride in his players, the job he's done as manager and his home city.

It was tougher this time around — they didn't run away with the division title by 15 games like last year — but the Detroit Tigers are AL Central champions and headed back to the playoffs.

Cabrera tagged homer No. 44 to take the AL lead as part of a four-hit performance, and the Tigers beat the Royals 6-3 on Monday night to clinch the Central for the second straight season, marking the first time the franchise has made the postseason two years in a row since 1934 and 1935. The Hank Greenberg era.

Jose Valverde retired Alcides Escobar on a grounder up the middle for the final out, prompting a scream from Prince Fielder and a somewhat subdued celebration on the field at Kauffman Stadium for Detroit, which had been six games out of first in June, but hung around and passed the fading White Sox over the final two weeks of the season. Detroit, which trudged to 87 victories, the fewest of any division winner, opens the playoffs Saturday. The Tigers won 95 games a season ago, advancing to the ALCS. Many prognosticators picked them to win the World Series this season. After a struggle, they'll get their chance.

"We've probably underachieved until tonight," Leyland said. "Now we've achieved. We don't have to listen to the 'underachieving' anymore. We got the postseason. Now it's a crap shoot."

Cabrera remains in great position to win Major League Baseball's first triple crown — leading in batting average, home runs and RBIs — since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. With two games to go in the regular season, Cabrera leads Josh Hamilton of Texas by one homer, and he's ahead of rookie Mike Trout of the Angels by four batting average points. Trout also had a four-hit game Monday night. Cabrera's 10-RBI lead on Hamilton would seem to be insurmountable.

Tigers' GM Dave Dombrowski said Cabrera has more at stake than personal achievement.

''He's a once-in-a-lifetime player,'' Dombrowski said. ''I talked to him and he said, 'The Triple Crown is important, but it's not the most important thing. I want to win a championship.'"

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