Kansas City, Mo. Jim Leyland called it one of the most difficult games he’s ever had to manage, tougher than Game 7 of the World Series, even though there was nothing at stake for his team.
There was plenty at stake for his players.
The spotlight Wednesday night was squarely on Miguel Cabrera, who became the first player in 45 years to win the Triple Crown.
Everything worked out perfectly for Leyland, including the outcome of the game — his AL Central champion Tigers beat Kansas City 1-0 on a double by Jackson in the fifth inning, which helped him achieve his own milestone.
“It was just a great night for baseball. It couldn’t have worked out better,” Leyland said.
Cabrera went 0-for-2 with a strikeout before leaving in the fourth inning, and finished with an AL-leading .330 average, 44 homers and 139 RBIs, becoming just the 15th player to win the Triple Crown.
The last player to achieve it was Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
“Right now I feel most grateful,” Cabrera said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
Scherzer wound up pitching four innings for Detroit, which will open the postseason Saturday at home against Oakland. The bullpen took over from there, with Luis Marte (1-0) picking up the win and Luke Putkonen his first career save.
The only run of the game came off the Royals’ Luis Mendoza (8-10), though that was hardly relevant on what turned out to be a memorable night in Kansas City.
The crowd at Kauffman Stadium gave Cabrera a standing ovation before he flied out in the first inning. He struck out in the fourth inning but remained in the game, allowing Leyland to remove him with two outs to another standing ovation.
Cabrera high-fived his teammates as he descended into the Detroit dugout, and then sheepishly walked to the top step and waved his helmet, almost as if he’d been playing at home.
“Our fans are great. We’ve seen that all year,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “Our whole team was doing the same thing, giving him a standing ovation. What he did was amazing.”
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig offered Cabrera his congratulations, calling the Triple Crown “a remarkable achievement that places him amongst an elite few in all of baseball history.”
“Miguel has long been one of the most accomplished hitters in the game,” Selig said, “and this recognition is one that he will be able to cherish for the rest of his career.”
Cabrera’s milestone wasn’t official until the Yankees pinch hit for Curtis Granderson in their game against the Boston Red Sox. Granderson had homered twice to reach 43 for the year, tied with the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton and one shy of the Tigers third baseman.
Cabrera finished four points better than the Angles’ Mike Trout, his biggest competition for MVP, to win his second straight batting title. Cabrera was the runaway leader with 139 RBIs.
“When he’s over the plate, he can do anything. He’s the best hitter in the game,” Trout said. “I think his approach, the way he battles with two strikes — you leave one pitch over the plate that at-bat and he’s going to hit it. He had an unbelievable year.”
The year Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown, he was part of Boston’s “Impossible Dream Team,” which won the AL title and reached the World Series for the first time in more than two decades.
The Hall of Fame outfielder said in a statement, “I am glad that (Cabrera) accomplished this while leading his team to the American League Central title.”
Indeed, the Tigers had already wrapped up their division, allowing them to line up their pitchers and rest some of their regulars for their postseason opener at home against AL West champion Oakland, which clinched its division by beating Texas earlier in the day.
Justin Verlander will start for Detroit to begin the best-of-five series.
Scherzer was not expected to pitch Wednesday after twisting his right ankle in a celebratory scrum on Monday night. He threw from flat ground Tuesday and decided to pitch the regular-season finale, testing out a sore shoulder that caused him to miss his last start.
The right-hander, who is 16-7 this season, ended up throwing 75 pitches in four innings, allowing three hits and walking two. Scherzer also struck out three.
He was gone by the time the Tigers finally coaxed a run across.
Omar Infante led off the fifth inning with a single, swiped a pair of bases and then trotted home from third when Jackson doubled in his final at-bat of the night.
The bullpens shepherded the game to its conclusion, allowing the Tigers to finally head into a joyous visiting clubhouse and celebrate Cabrera’s memorable night.
“A quality guy like he is, it couldn’t happen to a better guy,” said the Royals’ Mike Moustakas. “It’s awesome to have a front seat and watch this. It’s great for the game.”