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Top 5 reasons Detroit Tigers will win AL Central this year

Detroit trails Kansas City by one game

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DETROIT – When the 2014 Major League Baseball season kicked off in late March, it did so with clear favorites to win each American League division. In the West, Oakland was primed for another huge run after two straight heart-wrenching losses in the ALDS. The defending World Series champion Red Sox sat firmly atop the loaded AL East. And perhaps the most heavily favored team of all was Detroit, which figured to blow its Central Division opponents out of the water en route to a fourth straight title.

Fast forward to Sept. 12. There are just 16 games left on the schedule, and none of those teams are in first place. In fact, the Red Sox are in dead last and Oakland has fallen 10 games behind the Angels. The only division favorite that can still land on top is the Tigers, who pulled within a half game of the Royals Thursday night.

On Aug. 23 the Tigers lost their third game in a row and fell 3 1/2 games behind the Royals. Kansas City was 19-4 in its last 23 games and Detroit was struggling with the lowly Minnesota Twins. Fans around baseball began jumping on the KC bandwagon, but the resilient Tigers have clawed their way back into the race.

Here are the top five reasons the Tigers will finish on top of the AL Central when the season ends on Sept. 28.

1. The Tigers have flat-out dominated the Royals in head-to-head meetings

The best way to keep charging division contenders at bay is to win the head-to-head battles, and the Tigers have taken care of business in those games this season. Detroit has won 11 of its 16 games against Kansas City so far, not only handing the Tigers a leg up in any tiebreaker scenarios, but also planting an enormous seed of doubt into the minds of KC players.

Detroit has been thorough in its dismantling of Kansas City throughout 2014. Of the five series the two teams have played, the Tigers have won four, including a mini sweep to begin the season, a sweep in Kauffman Stadium in which the Royals were outscored 26-8 and a near-four-game sweep heading into the All-Star break.

If it weren't for the 16 meetings between the two division foes, the standings would look like this:
1. Kansas City: 75-54
2. Detroit: 69-61

The Tigers would be 6 1/2 games behind the Royals, a hopeless position for a team in September.

2. Detroit finally holds the schedule advantage

Kansas City certainly played solid baseball in August, but the team's 19-4 tear was aided largely by a stretch of playing 12 last-place teams in 13 days. On Aug. 20, the Royals owned the easiest remaining schedule in the MLB with a combined opponent winning percentage of just .474.

Now the tables have turned.

The Tigers own the easiest schedule in the division with 16 games remaining, seven of which will come against the last-place Twins. Though the Royals' upcoming slate is barely tougher, the final stretch of the season is where the surprise contenders will have to earn their stripes.

Both the Tigers and the Royals have been more effective on the road this season, but a seven-game trip to finish the season could burst KC's playoff bubble. The Royals will first travel to Cleveland, where the Indians own a 45-30 home record, and then to Chicago, where the White Sox are a .500 team.

Meanwhile, the Tigers will welcome the Twins and White Sox to Comerica Park for their final seven games. The two AL Central bottom feeders are a combined 61-85 on the road this season.

3. Kansas City went on a run, but the Tigers weathered the (severe) storm

When Kansas City won 24 of 30 games between July 22 and Aug. 23, Detroit was in danger of falling completely out of the division race. Some of the top teams in baseball, like Oakland and San Francisco, were smashed by the Royals as they streaked through the second half.

But now the dream streak has ended. The Royals were swept at home by the Indians to end the month, and have lost four of their last six games. KC's record against its remaining opponents is a combined 20-27. If the Royals continued to play like they did early in the second half, the Tigers wouldn't stand a chance, but that streak has clearly come to an end.

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4. Miguel Cabrera is heating up at the dish

Miguel Cabrera finished the month of August by mustering just one hit in 16 at-bats. His average dropped below .300 for the first time since May 16 and his power had completely evaporated.

As soon as the calendar flipped, the old Cabrera returned.

The two-time defending MVP blasted two home runs on Sept. 1 and has been on a tear ever since. In 10 games this month he is hitting .450 with five home runs and 10 RBI.

The Tigers were 74-62 despite the struggles of their top slugger, and his resurgence has sparked an offense that limped through August. Cabrera and company averaged 5.8 runs per game during his nine-game hitting streak at the beginning of the month.

5. Kyle Lobstein has given Detroit a solid No. 5 starter

The Tigers were desperate for someone to fill in and help the rotation when Anibal Sanchez hit the disable list. Buck Farmer imploded in his second start, Drew VerHagen lost his debut and Robbie Ray was just awful.

In the end, Lobstein has emerged as the only viable option.

Lobstein debuted on Aug. 23 when he pitched 5 2/3 innings in relief against the Twins. His performance out of the bullpen earned him his first start five days later, and he held the Yankees to one run in six innings.

Lobstein has made three starts since his debut, posting a 2.12 ERA and striking out 13 in 17 innings. Most importantly, the Tigers have won all three of those games.

Kansas City has certainly given the Tigers more of a race than they expected, but the defending AL Central champions are still in position to take home their fourth-straight crown.