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The Detroit Tigers are down, but not out

Tigers one game out of AL wildcard spot

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DETROIT – You could hear the groan everywhere in Metro Detroit.

As Shane Greene turned Wednesday and watched Justin Morneau's double roll up against the right field wall in U.S. Cellular Field, and Jose Abreu crossed home plate with the tying run, Tigers fans threw up their arms in disgust. Two batters later, the White Sox took the lead. Three more batters and the lead ballooned to 7-4. Game over.

It wasn't a new feeling for anyone who follows the Detroit Tigers. They had a lead, they blew a lead and they lost to a bad baseball team.

But this loss didn't feel the same as the previous 63 games the Tigers dropped this season. It felt somehow more damaging, like a hint of losing Game 163 in 2009 or a brief taste of watching the bullpen implode in the 2014 ALDS.

Why did the moment feel so big? It didn't come in the postseason, or even against a contending team. In fact, the pitching matchup didn't even suggest the Tigers should have won in the first place. It was just one game out of 162 on the seventh of September.

Wait. There it is: September. That's why the eighth-inning collapse felt like it cost the Tigers so much more than just one series on the South Side of Chicago. It's September, when the long summer marathon that consumes so much of the baseball season gives way to a desperate sprint for the final, precious playoff spots.

And the Tigers are right in the thick of it. When a team is right in the thick of the playoff race, every loss hurts.

In a town that has seen so many playoff races in the last decade, this one feels much different. When the Tigers lose, social media is flooded with proclamations of doom. When they win, it's met with (at best) hesitant hope or (at worst) harsh skepticism.

Maybe the team's early struggles chased fans away, pushing them toward the early football season. Have fans jumped ship to follow Michigan State as it pursues another Big Ten title? Or a Michigan football team that's ranked in the AP's top five? Some fans might even be holding their breath for Sunday, when the Lions kick off a new season in Indianapolis.

Even the most die-hard Tigers fans have struggled to trust this year's team, which has put together streaks of 8-1, 10-1 and 11-3 but also lagged through stretches of 2-7, 1-11 and 3-10. The Tigers have nine winning streaks of at least four games and five losing streaks of at least four games. The streakiness is just too much to overcome, right?

Wrong. The Tigers are right in the thick of it.

Anyone who watches the team on a daily bases would understand why fans have grown frustrated with the Tigers. But take a step back and look at the big picture. Isn't it strange that many Detroiters haven't embraced meaningful September baseball?

For a city that loves underdogs, and is living a comeback story itself, Detroit seems like a place that would be all aboard the Tigers' train. Sure, the team has a high payroll, but it was supposed to be irrelevant by now, remember?

The window was closing. The players were too old. They missed their chance in 2011 and 2012 and 2013.

Those talks have quietly died down. The Tigers are no longer led by a cast entirely made up of aging veterans. Sixty percent of the starting rotation is younger than 26 years old, with Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd playing major roles in keeping the Tigers alive. The starting outfielders are all younger than 30, and half of the infield -- Jose Iglesias and Nick Castellanos -- have yet to graduate from their mid-20s. Does Miguel Cabrera -- who has 31 home runs and a .942 OPS at age 33 -- look like he's at the end of the line?

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This is a different era than the one that ended at Fenway Park in 2013. Only three current Tigers played in that final game. Fulmer, Norris and Boyd have replaced Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello. Castellanos, Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez have replaced Prince Fielder, Johnny Peralta and Torii Hunter.

The team is young, and maddeningly inconsistent. But despite losing 10 of 13 in the middle of August and dropping 11 of 12 against the Indians in the first half, the Tigers are still in it.

Miggy being Miggy: Watch Cabrera's priceless reaction to Justin Upton's go-ahead homer Monday

Wednesday's series loss to the White Sox was ugly -- no, very ugly -- and the Tigers can't afford to blow any more chances to make up ground against losing teams. But even after dropping two straight games in Chicago, the Tigers are still only one game out of a playoff spot.

One game in 162.

Right on cue, the Baltimore Orioles are coming to Detroit for a three-game series that will set the tone for the final 20 games of the season. The Tigers have their best three pitchers lined up -- Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Verlander -- and the Orioles will counter with one of the American League's top offenses.

If the Tigers lose the series, it will be an uphill battle to catch the Orioles and Astros for the final playoff spot. But if the Tigers win, they'll be back on track in the wildcard race with all of their goals in front of them.

It hasn't always been pretty, but the playoffs are just one more hot streak away.