DETROIT -- The Tigers' magic number fell to five on Thursday. Their magic seems to be multiplying.
On the first day in two months with the American League Central race in their control, the Tigers took care of business with a 5-4 walk-off win to sweep the Royals out of town and move two games ahead of the White Sox, who lost to the Rays on Thursday night.
The fact that the Tigers did it on one of the strangest days they've had at the office this season is secondary.
Doug Fister's nine consecutive strikeouts set an American League record en route to seven of the best innings a Tigers starter has thrown this year. But the ninth inning, after he had exited, left him with a no-decision.
When Billy Butler's game-tying home run off Joaquin Benoit quieted the crowd of 33,019 on a September afternoon, the Tigers seemed set up for a potentially crushing loss that would reshape the division race. When Prince Fielder's comebacker skipped over reliever Tim Collins and under Tony Abreu's glove, Detroit had its first signs of offensive life since the second inning with a seeing-eye double.
"It reached the outfield," Fielder said with a smile, when asked if it was his first career infield double. "Barely."
When Jhonny Peralta hit a chopper to third, the feeling of dread at a potential inning-ending double play was inescapable, until Mike Moustakas' third error of the game loaded the bases with one out.
When Brayan Pena, a backup catcher filling in at first base for injured Eric Hosmer, made a diving stop on Alex Avila's ground ball at first, the split-second of fear at another potential double play was understandable.
When Pena touched first base with a look of resignation as Don Kelly sprinted home with the winning run, the sense of the race turning further in the Tigers' favor was unmistakable.
"It was just a great day," manager Jim Leyland said. "It turned out great for us, and it could've been a really tough, tough loss. But like I say, you can see that everybody's playing for something."
Fielder might have described it best when asked if he could remember another win this year quite this, well, you know ...
"Weird?" Fielder asked. "Nah. It's a first for me."
Weird sounds about right.
"That was unbelievable," Kelly said. "That was fun."
Those are other suggestions.
"This is a crazy game," Leyland said. "It's almost a shame [Fister] didn't get the win. But the Tigers got the win and that's, right now, the most important thing."
That was the bottom line in the Tigers' clubhouse as they packed up for their season-ending road trips to Minnesota and Kansas City. In the end, no matter how weird or crazy, they took care of business, and extended their division lead to two games once the White Sox lost their series opener with Tampa Bay Thursday evening.
"They're playing against a team that's just as big of a threat as anybody else," reliever Phil Coke said.
Fister's strikeout streak took him through the first seven innings with a shutout bid, allowing four Tigers runs over two error-marred Royals innings to loom as a formidable margin. Once Moustakas and Jeff Francoeur doubled leading off the eighth, the Royals were back in the game.
It took a ranging play from second baseman Omar Infante to stop the Royals' rally and keep it a one-run game. Once Butler led off the ninth with a game-tying home run off Benoit, closing in place of the ill Jose Valverde, the comeback was complete.
The Tigers had managed just two singles since the second inning when Collins took the mound for the ninth. Fielder's bouncer up the middle didn't look like it would join them.
An aggressive, and admittedly lucky, turn from Fielder turned it into a two bases.
"I thought I had a shot, so I kind of went for it," Fielder said. "Probably would've been out if [second baseman Johnny Giavotella] made a good throw, but it was going to be tough for him because he was on the run."
Fielder was safe when Giavotella threw wide of second. It opened up first base for Collins to intentionally walk Delmon Young and set up a double play after Ramon Santiago's sacrifice bunt attempt couldn't get Fielder to third.
Once, maybe twice, it looked like the Royals might get the double play. Kelvin Herrera faced Peralta in almost the same situation as Wednesday night. Instead of a takeout slide at second erasing the twin-killing, Moustakas' bobble never gave him a chance to start it.
"No excuses for that, it's a play that has to be made," Moustakas said of the Royals' fifth error. "Kelvin did a great job getting a ground ball to me and I just missed it."
With the bases loaded, Avila came precariously close to a walk-off walk. Then his sharp grounder down the first-base line looked at first like a walk-off hit.
"When I hit it, I thought that it was down the line," Avila said. "And then, all of a sudden, I just see [Pena] dive and catch it. It's a good thing he couldn't get it out of his glove."
Kelly, pinch-running for Young, was watching from across the infield.
"You have to go hard on that, because if he comes up and tries to throw home, I thought that I had a chance to beat it," Kelly said. "If he touches first and then tries to throw home, you have to get in there."
Pena said later his first reaction was to try to throw home. His position and Avila's charge down the line gave him no choice.
"I dove and I saw him coming my way, so I had no shot," Pena said. "So I just took the out, for whatever it was worth."
For the Royals, it wasn't worth much. For the Tigers, it was priceless, even if it was weird.