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08/26/09 3:24 AM ET

With gutty play, Tigers clinch road series

Strong defense gives Detroit victory over Angels

ANAHEIM -- Maybe it's fitting that the series that defines the Tigers for the home stretch of their playoff stretch is happening in the shadow of Disneyland, where Detroit's postseason dreams are starting to look a lot more real than they did two days ago.

But as Clete Thomas kept backpedaling on the eighth-inning fly ball from Angels slugger Kendry Morales Tuesday, all the Tigers could see was the looming figure of Angel Stadium's right-field fence, and Thomas running out of room beneath the out-of-town scoreboard that showed another White Sox loss in Boston earlier in the evening.

Thomas played Morales' fly ball with the aggressiveness that manager Jim Leyland wants to see his team play with on the road. And as Thomas came down from his leap with the ball in his glove, preserving the 5-3 margin with which the Tigers eventually went on to beat the Angels, he sprinted down the right-field line to the Tigers dugout.

"I thought Morales' ball was gone," Leyland said. "I was waiting for the crowd to roar, and then all of a sudden, the bench was roaring."

They haven't had that kind of turn of emotions very often this summer. Usually on the road, they've gone the other way.

Not since June 8-11 had the Tigers won a series on the road, taking three of five from the White Sox in a Chicago set that included Dontrelle Willis in the Tigers' rotation and Jeremy Bonderman returning from his previous stint on the disabled list.

They had lost 10 straight road series since, beginning with Pittsburgh and continuing last weekend at Oakland, with stops in seven other cities in between.

Whether there was anything to it, they knew they had to play better away from home if they were going to reach the postseason. By playing better now, they've stretched their lead in the American League to 4 1/2 games over the White Sox, and kept it at 4 1/2 over the red-hot Twins. It's their largest lead since June 25, and a lead preserved on games they could've easily lost the past two nights.

"It was a good win," Leyland said. "It was a heck of a win, really. I'm sure everybody was feeling we'd come here and get our tails kicked."

Instead, they've come out west and taken two close games from the AL West leaders and potential AL Division Series opponents. It took about as solid a defensive game as they've played all year, and a performance from the top half of the order that they hoped to see.

It isn't just about winning. It's the way they've won these games.

"We played like we want to play," said Miguel Cabrera, whose game-tying solo homer and three-hit night continued his torrid stretch. "We know we're playing with a first-place team. We know it's going to be tough. We know we have to play hard every inning, every game."

Curtis Granderson's leadoff homer was the first of two fifth-inning shots off Angels starter John Lackey (8-7) to bring the Tigers back from an early 3-1 deficit. While Cabrera's game-tying drive to straightaway center was more majestic, Granderson's shot was his eighth career homer in 20 games at the Angels' home park, tying his high total for any other Major League stadium he visits.

If that wasn't enough, his flat-out sprint across center field to rob Bobby Abreu of a first-inning hit likely prevented a run from scoring.

"I don't know what it is," Granderson said. "Just everything about this ballpark, I like."

He nearly topped that in the seventh, when his drive to right seemingly hit the top of the out-of-town scoreboard built into the fence and bounced back into play. Though a manager can't formally ask for a replay, crew chief Mark Carlson brought the umpires into the tunnel for a video review. Replays eventually confirmed their ruling, but Placido Polanco's triple into the right-field corner on Lackey's next and final pitch made it a moot point.

The rally made a winner out of Tigers starter Jarrod Washburn (9-7), who overcame Howard Kendrick's three-run homer in the second inning to shut down his former team over the next four for his first victory as a Tiger in his fifth Detroit start.

"My command was terrible all night, to tell you the truth," Washburn said. "It took a couple innings until we realized what we were going to have to do."

All three innings of Tigers relief ended with drama. Zach Miner replaced Washburn and walked the bases loaded in the seventh before rookie catcher Alex Avila recovered a ball in the dirt to throw out Abreu at the plate.

Another Miner walk with two outs in the eighth set up pinch-hitter Morales and Thomas' catch at the fence.

"I had a great jump and a great read of it off the bat. It was just a matter of whether I was going to run out of room," Thomas said.

Once Fernando Rodney allowed his first two runners on in the ninth, he had to retire the middle of the Angels order. He jammed Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero into fly balls with 99-mph fastballs before inducing Juan Rivera to ground out for his 28th save.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.