The Tigers clinched a playoff spot hours after their game ended on Wednesday, though they are still focused on securing the AL Central title. With the Royals' 6-4 loss to the Indians, Detroit now has a two-game lead Kansas City with four games left.
Behind an encouragingly strong eight-inning, one-run showing from Justin Verlander, the Tigers beat the White Sox 6-1 in the afternoon then clinched a postseason appearance later that night when the Mariners, who have stumbled their way nearly out of the race this week by losing five straight games, were shut out by the Blue Jays. Despite the eventual lopsided score, Detroit’s win was a tense one. Both benches cleared after Chicago ace Chris Sale hit Tigers DH Victor Martinez with a pitch. After the game Martinez said that the Sox believed he was stealing signs, which Sale, in turn, denied. Sale also denied that he hit Martinez intentionally (going with the classic “one got away”), though the Tigers weren’t buying it.
It would be odd timing for Sale to intentionally plunk Martinez, in what was then a one-run game. On the other hand, the White Sox don’t have much to lose at this point in the year. Either way, after Martinez was hit in the sixth, Detroit tied the game at one then went on to score five unanswered runs off Chicago’s bullpen.
Martinez was an eye-popping 15-for-28 against Sale in his career coming into the game, and Sale intentionally walked him in the first then struck him out in the third — after which he made an odd gesture, seemingly tipping his cap toward the outfield. This made more sense after the game, when Martinez said that according to former teammate Avisail Garcia, the White Sox believed he had an accomplice with binoculars stealing signs (shades of Toronto’s legendary and possibly mythical Man in White).
“Give me a break,” said Martinez, while manager Brad Ausmus called the accusations ridiculous.
“If they injure Victor there and we're in the playoff hunt, that's bad news," Ausmus told reporters after the game. “[Sale] clearly did it on purpose. He made it obvious. And quite frankly, we can't do anything about it because there [were] warnings issued. If we retaliate, now one of our guys gets suspended. That guy could be suspended right into the playoffs.”
Frustrated though they may be, the Tigers shouldn’t have much trouble putting this behind them, as they now have a postseason on which to focus. The biggest takeaway for them was not the near-brawl, but that 31-year-old Verlander looked almost like his old ace-like self, striking out six and walking none.
He’s had an undeniably rough season, coming into Wednesday’s game with a 4.68 ERA, an ERA+ of 85 and 153 strikeouts, well behind his career average 209 per season. But this is Verlander’s second straight very fine start — he tossed a 7 1/3-inning, one-run win against the Royals last week — and while that’s hardly enough to declare him back in peak form, it’s an encouraging sign as the team braces for October, even if it won’t be celebrating that just yet.