DETROIT -- The Tigers still have a comfortable lead in the AL Central, and the odds are overwhelming that they will be playing baseball in October for the third straight season.
Thursday, though, they looked more like refugees from a World War II movie than a championship-caliber baseball team. Justin Verlander couldn't pitch, Austin Jackson couldn't catch and Miguel Cabrera's injuries had gotten to the point where he was bleeding through his uniform. Not a trickle of blood, like Curt Schilling's famous sock, but something that looked like a battle wound.
The Tigers were still able to make the game close against the hapless Twins -- Jackson's three-run homer helped Detroit overcome a 6-2 deficit, and they had the winning run on base in the ninth -- but Minnesota walked out of Comerica Park with a 7-6 victory and a 2-1 win in the three-game series.
The worst part for the Tigers is that Verlander took a step back after it finally looked like he was ready to end a three-month slump. He came into the game having only allowed eight runs in his last four starts, and he was facing his favorite team, but bad pitches and bloopers meant he got a no-decision after allowing six runs in seven innings.
"Today was tough," he said. "I'd say frustrating was a good word for it."
Verlander's record remains 12-9, but even he isn't sure how it is that good after putting together a 4.45 ERA in his last 20 starts.
"It has been a real grind for me all season," he said. "It's been a real battle. When you look at my numbers and then look at my record (12-9), you realize it could be a lot worse."
The Tigers ace thought he had fixed the latest mechanical flaw, but on Thursday, he struggled badly against a division rival that hasn't beaten him in over four years.
"We just battled and battled against him, and we were finally able to get some runs against him," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, who has never hidden his admiration for Verlander. "At some point, you think he's going to run out of gas and you'll really get to him, but that man is tireless. No matter what you do against him, he just keeps coming after you."
Cabrera had a chance to give Verlander a win in the sixth inning, moments after Jackson's game-tying homer. Cabrera came to the plate with two out and Torii Hunter on first. As the bloodstain grew on his knee, he struck out on a 3-2 pitch, then hobbled to his position at third base, looking for all the world like Oz's Tin Man after misplacing his oil can.
Luckily for the Tigers, their superstar hadn't added another injury to his growing collection -- he's currently playing through problems in his hip, back, stomach, knee and shin -- he had only ripped open a scab while diving for a ball. By the eighth inning, he was rebandaged, had switched to a fresh pair of pants and was back in business.
He drew a one-out walk in the ninth as the Tigers tried to tie the game off Twins closer Glen Perkins, and pinch-runner Don Kelly got to second when Prince Fielder singled, but Victor Martinez grounded into a game-ending double play.
How bad had things gotten for the Tigers? The reason the Twins had the 7-6 lead going into the ninth was that Detroit's most dependable fielder had misplayed what seemed like a routine line drive. With two out in the eighth and a runner on second, Minnesota's Chris Herrmann hit a ball just to Jackson's left.
Rightfielder Torii Hunter took one look at the liner and started heading for the dugout, only to turn around in horror when Jackson started staggering toward right-center.
"I thought it was three outs, so I started jogging in, and then I saw Jackson going like he was drunk," Hunter said. "It was ugly. It was so ugly."
Herrmann said he hit the ball with a lot of backspin, but he never imagined it was going to drop in. Instead, a combination of the spin and air currents turned a routine line drive into something that acted like Al Alburquerque's best slider.
"When it was hit, I thought it was a regular play in the gap," Jackson said. "I started running over there, and the ball just took off toward rightfield and veered down real hard."
As usual, Jackson didn't dive, fearing Herrmann would end up on third base if he missed. Instead, he tried to grab the ball off the top of the turf, and just couldn't hold on. Herrmann did stay at second, but Doug Bernier scored what turned out to be the winning run.
At the end of the season, Thursday's loss probably won't mean a thing, but it was certainly an ugly beast of a game.