By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - With a Triple Crown, a home run king and a Prince, the Detroit Tigers are hoping to reclaim Major League Baseball's throne and give the Motor City its first World Series winner in 28 years.
The Tigers spent much of the regular season playing like commoners but enter the playoffs as a dangerous opponent few would like to face, including the American League (AL) West champion Oakland Athletics they will face in a five-game division series starting Saturday in Detroit.
With a starting rotation anchored by reigning AL most valuable player Justin Verlander and a regal batting order featuring Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and slugger Prince Fielder, the Tigers won a second straight AL Central title.
After running away with the division last season and strolling into the playoffs with cushy 15-game lead, the Tigers were expected to dominate again this year but instead spent large parts of the campaign languishing below .500 chasing the surprising Chicago White Sox.
Detroit's 88 wins are the joint fewest of any of the 10 playoff teams. If not for a late season surge that saw them win eight of their last 10 to overhaul the White Sox, they would have watched their season end in bitter disappointment.
"It was a rocky road, it was a tough season, but in this business, you have to be able to take some hits," Detroit's crusty 67-year-old manager Jim Leyland told reporters.
"This isn't a place for the faint-hearted. Hell, we took a lot of punches, a lot of them justified, some of them maybe not, but hey, we can take a punch."
After losing to the Texas Rangers in last year's AL Championship Series, the Tigers underscored their determination to make that final step and return to the Fall Classic by throwing a king's ransom at Fielder, luring the free-agent slugger to Motown with nine-year $214 million deal.
Fielder batted a superb .313, slammed 30 home runs and drove in 108 runs but was left in the shadows by third baseman Cabrera, who closed out the regular season on Wednesday by becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years leading the AL in batting average (.330), home runs (44) and RBI(139).
Cabrera and Fielder give the Tigers an explosive one-two punch at the plate, having combined for 74 homers and 247 RBI.
"It's surreal, unbelievable what he (Cabrera) has done this year," said Verlander. "It's amazing to me how he continues to get better.
"You look at his numbers in the past and he's like the best player in the game and yet he turned it up to another level this year somehow."
Some would say the same things about Verlander, the ace of the Detroit pitching staff who will get the start in Game One against the A's at Comerica Park on Saturday.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)