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MIN@DET: Fister pitches seven scoreless frames in win

DETROIT -- When Doug Fister looks back and remembers more broken bats around the infield than baserunners, he has had a good day.

When the Tigers can look at the standings and see a double-digit lead in the American League Central where there was half that margin a week and a half ago, they've had a very good stretch. Judging by the franchise standards, it's a historic one.

The stretch isn't just about the nine straight wins, the latest being a 2-1 win over the Twins on Sunday afternoon at Comerica Park. It's also about the teams they beat, rivals in a division they're suddenly commanding with no signs of pity.

Not since they joined the AL Central in 1998 have the Tigers swept through three straight division opponents. The last time they won nine straight was 1984, part of the 35-5 start that put them in command of the AL East from April onward. They can't rival that, but their 19-4 record since Aug. 19 has them on a pretty comparable closing run.

"It just matters whether you get hot at the right time," Delmon Young said. "You just want to keep it going as long as you can."

As of late Sunday afternoon, their 10 1/2-game lead was the largest of any Major League team other than Philadelphia. Their gap on the Yankees for the AL's best record was less than half that. Their magic number is down to seven, with a chance to take chunks out of that with three games against the White Sox starting Monday night in Chicago.

They could be celebrating their first division title since 1987 by next weekend, depending on what happens at U.S. Cellular Field and what the Indians do in Texas. They might actually prefer if Cleveland sticks in the race a while longer, if they can beat the Rangers and move the Tigers closer to home-field advantage for the AL Division Series.

They got a rehearsal for a celebration Sunday afternoon, when Miguel Cabrera slammed a pie in Jose Valverde's face. That was for Valverde's team-record 43rd save, not for anything beyond that. But October was more on Valverde's mind.

"It's good for me, my family and all my friends," Valverde said of his record. "But what I want is to compete all the time, be in the field, save the game for my team to go to the postseason. That's what I want. It's good, but I want to go to the World Series."

That's a long way off. The first step isn't.

"Everybody's playing together, everybody's playing well together and playing for one another," Fister said. "That's what good ballclubs do, and that's what we're focusing on, playing for one another."

Once Austin Jackson and Magglio Ordonez singled and scored in the opening inning, Fister (8-13) had his lead. With an injury-riddled Twins lineup not showing much proven offense beyond Joe Mauer, Fister took care of the rest with seven scoreless innings. He didn't last longer because broken-bat foul balls and five strikeouts pushed his pitch count to 108.

While the strikeouts Fister has been racking up lately are an unexpected new facet to the contact pitcher's game, the broken bats are not. He snapped several Tigers bats in a start earlier in the year while pitching for the Mariners. He cracked three in one inning Sunday as the Twins tried to do something with his pitches on the corner.

It's more about location, Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, than velocity.

"He's staying out of the middle of the plate," Leyland said. "He broke a lot of bats today. He takes that ball in and out, off the corner, back in on the corner, real good. It's a tempting pitch to swing at. It's pretty good."

For a Twins lineup that featured just two hitters with an average over .250, albeit limited playing time in the Majors for many of them, it was all too tempting.

"Fister was very tough," Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He was throwing hard inside. Our guys really battled to get him out of there and we really never mounted much."

Once Joaquin Benoit tossed a perfect eighth ahead of Valverde's save, Fister improved to 5-1 with the Tigers. He has allowed just three earned runs on 22 hits over 36 2/3 innings in his last five starts, all of them Detroit victories.

When he compounded his pitching with two defensive gems, a diving stop and a leaping grab that used all of his 6-foot-8 frame, it seemed to fit the roll the Tigers are on. Fister takes pride fielding his position, and he takes advantage of being tall.

Depending on how the week unfolds, he could pitch Friday in Oakland with an opportunity to clinch the division. Considering how much his arrival has meant to the Tigers since his July 30 trade from Seattle, it might be fitting if he did.

"Sometimes you make those moves like we did with [Jarrod] Washburn and [Aubrey] Huff [two years ago], [and it] didn't work out," Leyland said. "We made some moves this year, and up to this point, they've worked terrific. You never know how that stuff's going to play out."

These days, things are playing out perfectly, even the magic numbers.

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