‘It’s a good step’: Tigers ride strong division play to sweep of Sox

Detroit Tigers

CHICAGO — Spencer Torkelson turned to the Tigers’ dugout and yelled after Aaron Bummer’s full-count pitch left his bat. He didn’t need to see where the ball landed; he knew it was gone.

“I was just hyped up,” Torkelson said of his go-ahead homer in the seventh inning, sending the Tigers to a 3-2 win Sunday over the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field. “Looked to the dugout, gave them a quick woo and went.”

Tarik Skubal was equally animated after he retired the Sox in order in the bottom of the inning. He got back in the dugout and was fired up to get high-fives.

“Miggy told me before the game with some expletives that I’d better go seven innings today,” Skubal said. “It was a little challenge before the game.”

Two innings later, with a smattering of Chicago fans doing their familiar anti-Detroit chant, closer Alex Lange extinguished their last hope with a game-ending double play from Oscar Colás. Lange, who gave up a walk-off grand slam in his last appearance here in June, pumped his fist for the final out, sealing the Tigers’ three-game series sweep and improving them to 28-15 against AL Central opponents.

This is about as animated as the Tigers get. They’re not likely to have a benches-clearing brawl like the Tigers-White Sox rivalries of yesteryear, though some of these players were around when José Abreu exchanged hostilities with Niko Goodrum and Casey Mize a couple years ago at Comerica Park. For the most part, it’s not in their nature, but they’re competitive enough to celebrate their success.

The Tigers know their situation well enough to not celebrate too much. But they also know their situation in the division well enough to know these games mean something.

“Winning in general is a good sign, but matching up well against opponents that we’re going to face more than others is definitely big,” Torkelson said.

If the AL Central were a college conference, the Tigers would have the top seed in the postseason tournament based on league play. With nine division games to go, they’ve already clinched their first winning record against the AL Central since 2016. The only other AL Central team with a winning record within the division right now is Minnesota at 24-21.

Detroit has won or split its last five series against division foes since the All-Star break. If the Tigers win at least one game from the White Sox next weekend at Comerica Park, they’ll win the season series against all four division rivals for the first time since 2011.

“We’re proud of that, because we’ve played each of these teams very well,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “Obviously we need to clean up some things against other teams. But if you’re going to win your division and start pushing this in the right direction, that’s an ingredient.”

The Tigers’ struggles against the rest of the league have been their downfall; they’ll be reminded of their 6-23 record against AL East opponents when they arrive at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday.

Still, the Tigers are tied with the Cubs (28-18 in NL Central play) for most wins within their own division. Only the Braves (27-8), Dodgers (26-12) and Mariners (24-12) have better records in divisional play. Detroit is the only team with a losing record overall but a winning record within its division.

“I don’t have an answer for that,” Torkelson said. “We’ve seen them a lot. We know the personnel. We feel like we match up well against everybody. I think we just have really solid approaches to the arms we face. 

“In this league, it’s really nice facing guys where you’ve seen all their stuff 10 times already, so I think that plays into it. You can develop an approach.”

Yes, the AL Central is having a rough year overall. But when its teams have faced each other, the Tigers have been the class of the group. It doesn’t mean as much as it used to, especially with a more balanced schedule this season, but it still means something to these guys.

“Obviously with a different schedule, it changes things. We need to be better out of our division,” Skubal said. “But it’s important to beat the teams in the division. It’s good to beat the teams you play the most games against.”

For Hinch, it’s a foundation.

“It’s a good step,” he said, “because it’s part of an overall winning culture that we’re trying to establish.”

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