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Tigers score four on three homers in fourth

MINNEAPOLIS -- Four years after the Tigers lost a division crown at the Metrodome, they clinched a playoff spot down the street at Target Field. This one didn't have quite the same drama, not with the Twins in fourth place, but Tuesday night's 4-2 win meant plenty for the Tigers.

For Joaquin Benoit, it meant a little more.

He has thrived as a closer in part because he doesn't put too much pressure on himself in save situations. After his first blown save of the year, however, he made a lot of it. He wanted another shot at them in a playoff race situation.

"Everybody wants to come back when you have a rough outing and try to show everybody you can do your job," he admitted, "especially when people are going to say, 'Oh, he's blown his first game. Who knows what's going to happen next?' You can show everybody that you're still there."

He's still there at the end of Detroit's bullpen. And as he struck out Clete Thomas and Eduardo Escobar to leave the potential tying run at the plate and punch Detroit's playoff ticket once again, he showed he's still a formidable factor in Detroit's postseason hopes.

The same could be said of the bullpen as a whole. One night after the Twins scored four runs off the Tigers relief corps to nullify six shutout innings from Justin Verlander, Detroit relievers struck out seven of the nine batters they faced.

Chris Parmelee's ninth-inning double was the only ball hit out of the infield, let alone the only baserunner, and Benoit didn't allow him to get any further.

The eight bullpen outs included a 10-pitch, three-strikeout eighth inning from Bruce Rondon, whose first outing in three weeks showed no ill effects from the elbow tenderness that kept him out.

He hit 101 mph on the Target Field radar gun twice in his three-pitch strikeout of Trevor Plouffe, then he threw nasty sliders in the dirt to induce swings and misses from Josh Willingham and Josmil Pinto. If he had any lingering elbow soreness, he would've felt it on those.

He felt a "little bit weird, a little bit tight" when he first took the mound, he admitted through an interpreter. And when he threw the first slider, he felt "a little bit scared."

Once he realized he was fine, the results were potentially scary for the rest of the American League postseason field.

"Keeping hitters off balance at 100 mph is a pretty good asset to have," said starter Doug Fister (14-9), whose 6 1/3 innings of two-run ball with seven strikeouts made him Detroit's third 14-game winner.

Yes he is, which is why manager Jim Leyland was cautiously optimistic.

"I wanted to see if he threw it over the plate or around the plate," Leyland said. "The only thing I was concerned about was the control because he hadn't pitched in so long, but it set up just right for him, the lineup did, because you had three right-handers in a row there. So we couldn't ask for anything better."

The bullpen effort protected a lead built entirely on fourth-inning home runs. The Tigers hadn't hit three in a game since Aug. 26. With struggling Twins lefty Scott Diamond on the mound, they produced their first three-homer inning since June 1.

After stranding four runners on base through the first three innings, including the bases loaded with nobody out in the second, they simply started circling them.

"Well, we won the game the way we win games: We hit the ball in the gap and we hit it over the fence," Leyland said. "When we hit the ball in the gap and over the fence, we're pretty good."

Victor Martinez led off the onslaught with a line drive down the left-field line, a few feet inside the foul pole, for his 14th home run. Four pitches later, Omar Infante lined one out to left for his 10th.

After Diamond (6-12) seemingly settled down, Ramon Santiago's line-drive single to right extended the inning for Austin Jackson, who hit his first homer since Aug. 23.

"With Infante, it was a hard changeup right over the middle," Diamond said. "I thought I had Martinez punched out earlier in the at-bat, but then I left a fastball up over the plate. It wasn't a good pitch at all. And with Jackson, it was ball that was down, but he dropped the head on it. I thought it was a decent pitch, but he got it pretty well."

Suddenly, what had been a 1-0 deficit and a Tigers fan base on edge when the inning started was a 4-1 lead. The way Fister and the bullpen pitched, it was plenty.

The capper was a rebound from Benoit, not just mentally but physically, for his 23rd save in 24 chances. He threw 1 2/3 innings Monday night, then bounced back for a standard three-out save Tuesday. It's not the way Leyland likes to tax Benoit's arm, but it's the kind of rebound he's going to have to do in the postseason.

"It was really challenging for me coming back, 1 2/3 yesterday, coming back and throwing one inning today," Benoit said. "It was good."

With Tuesday's win, they've guaranteed themselves a postseason spot. With a win in any of the final four games, they'll clinch their third straight division title.

If they can go in with their bullpen pitching like this, they like their chances a little better.

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