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Must C Clutch: Fielder's blast gives Tigers late lead

MINNEAPOLIS -- With one loft into the left-field flower bed at Target Field, Prince Fielder might well have buried the suspense from the American League Central race, not to mention a summer's worth of questions about whether the Tigers would take over the division.

When Fielder was done rounding the bases on the go-ahead two-run home run in the eighth inning of an eventual 2-1 Tigers win over the Twins, he almost bowled over a couple teammates bounding into the dugout, nearly slipping on the steps.

"Yeah, that's not a good time to be in his way," manager Jim Leyland said.

Miguel Cabrera, who caught Fielder in the dugout, returned the favor in the postgame celebration when he jumped on his back for a piggyback ride. The way the game unfolded, it seemed fitting.

All season long, Fielder has been one of the most steady presences in the Tigers clubhouse. His outlook often made it hard to tell on a given day whether the Tigers had won or lost. Maybe it was the situation or the scene, but the emotion bubbled out of him.

"When it's there, I let it out," Fielder said with a smile.

With his 30th homer of the year, what would have been a frustrating shutout loss to the Twins became the kind of win the Tigers have started to pull out lately -- low-scoring decisions dictated by pitching. Once former Tigers reliever and current Rays closer Fernando Rodney shut down the White Sox in the ninth inning minutes later, Detroit reached the doorstep of its second straight AL Central title.

The Tigers' magic number is down to one, meaning they need only one win over the next three nights in Kansas City, or one White Sox defeat in Cleveland in the same stretch, and they'll be the first Tigers team to reach the postseason in back-to-back years since Charlie Gehringer led Detroit to back-to-back World Series in 1934-35.

Less than two weeks after falling three games back, and a week after missing a golden opportunity to take the lead in a doubleheader, the Tigers are right where they want to be. They have two nail-biting wins to thank for it.

"We have to wait," said closer Jose Valverde, who finished off Anibal Sanchez's third win in four starts with his 34th save. "It's not over yet. I want to win already, but you never know. Baseball's so crazy."

Detroit will still have some work to do to finish the job, and some concerns about its offense. The Twins entered the day with an AL-high 4.79 ERA, but held Detroit to 10 runs over three games, including just four runs against Minnesota's three starting pitchers.

Liam Hendriks delivered the stingiest performance of them all, holding the Tigers to five hits over seven scoreless innings. He escaped two-on, one-out situations in the fifth and sixth innings, the latter with a Fielder double-play grounder after Quintin Berry's sacrifice bunt opened up first base for Hendriks to intentionally walk Miguel Cabrera.

"He used all pitches, spotted both sides of the plate, threw a breaking ball behind in the count," Leyland said. "Very effective, obviously, and we haven't seen much of him. He did a good job."

Sanchez kept pace for as long as he could, holding Minnesota's lineup to five singles over the first six innings with the same type of pitching that helped him shut out the Royals on three hits Tuesday in Detroit. It made for all the more sudden of a turn when his first three seventh-inning pitches turned into the game's opening run -- a first-pitch infield single to deep short from Trevor Plouffe, a sacrifice bunt from Alexi Casilla and a first-pitch RBI single from rookie shortstop Pedro Florimon.

"They're able to push a run across with an infield hit, a broken bat hit," Alex Avila said, "and up until Prince's home run, it seemed like we had so many hard-hit balls at guys with guys on base. It's a funny game."

If not for a step saved or a piece of strategy, Fielder might not have gotten the second chance. Austin Jackson's leadoff single off Jared Burton in the eighth set up the Tigers with a similar situation to the sixth. With the Tigers down a run, however, Leyland didn't want to play for one.

"I think that last situation, down a run, I wanted both the big guys to have a chance to hit," Leyland said.

After Burton struck out Berry, Cabrera saw a potential game-tying double nearly turn into an inning-ending double play on Florimon's leaping catch. Cabrera's liner was hit so hard, it looked like a hit.

"I really didn't have enough time to make the decision if I was going to go or not," Jackson said. "I kind of froze a little bit. If that ball gets through, I'm looking to get to third."

Fielder, by contrast, came up just hoping to get the ball out of the infield for the first time all day. He was 2-for-7 in his career off Burton, both singles.

"I don't think I've made contact off him the past three at-bats," Fielder said. "So I figured if it was something straight, I'd better swing."

He got a first-pitch fastball over the plate and lofted it.

"Burton's been so good for us," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I think he was trying to go with a fastball outside and actually yanked it to the middle, and the guy did what he does. They got those big guys in the middle. You know if you make a mistake, they're going to hurt you. And that one ended up hurting us."

It might be the shot that ends up propelling the Tigers. Asked if it was the biggest home run of his career, Fielder smiled.

"At least on this team," he said. "Like I said, I'm just happy I was able to help out today. It was tough today, but it ended up well."

It could end up sweeter on Monday.

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