DETROIT -- All that's left to separate the Tigers and White Sox, now tied atop the American League Central, is a month-long sprint to the finish.
All that separated their aces Sunday night was one sixth-inning slider from Chris Sale, who has befuddled most AL hitters all season. He flummoxed Delmon Young all night until Young finally got a hold of one swinging from his shoetops.
He won't claim any game plan for his three-run homer that became the difference in a 4-2 win to finish off a series sweep before a sellout crowd at Comerica Park.
"It should've been strike three," Young shrugged. "The ball was in the dirt. I just got lucky."
The Tigers can't count on the same kind of fortune to carry them through this race. They only seem to have it against Sale (15-6), now 0-3 against the Tigers this year and 15-3 against everybody else.
"I just fell a little short," Sale said. "Delmon put a good swing on what I thought was a decent pitch. Just went their way."
Three days after Tigers fans worried they might have a lost season, they essentially have a new one. Their second three-game sweep of the White Sox in six weeks, and their second such sweep over the Labor Day weekend in two years, moved Detroit back to even in the division race for the first time since July 25, three days after they last swept the White Sox to take the division lead.
It wasn't the Super Bowl, as manager Jim Leyland put it, and they have to play better over the next few weeks than they did coming out of their last sweep. Nonetheless, it's a boost.
"We just beat a very good team, a team that's been in first place for the most part of the year, and it's going to be hard to take that away from them," Leyland said. "They're good and they've answered every bell so far. We just got to play baseball and continue to enjoy it."
Both Sale and Justin Verlander rebounded from drubbings in their previous starts -- Verlander taking a 12-hit barrage in Kansas City, Sale lasting just five innings in Baltimore. Both allowed solo home runs. Verlander to Alejandro De Aza on the game's second pitch, Sale to Brennan Boesch in the fifth inning after allowing one hit over the first four.
Verlander settled in. After stranding Dewayne Wise on second with back-to-back strikeouts of Paul Konerko and Alex Rios, the reigning AL MVP allowed just two singles over his final seven innings.
Verlander retired the side in order in just three of those innings, yet seemed able to garner swings and misses when needed. Working a game plan with catcher Gerald Laird, he threw only one curveball the first time through Chicago's lineup, then eight the next time around. Eventually, he settled in with his usual late-inning fastball, hitting 100 mph on the Comerica Park radar gun in the eighth inning as he crossed the 120-pitch mark.
It ended up a classic Verlander outing against a team he has pretty well owned ever since it roughed him up for his first three seasons. He's 12-1 against the White Sox since 2009, 11 of them quality starts. Even so, Sunday marked the first time Verlander piled up double-digit strikeouts against his old nemesis.
"His slider was good tonight. His curveball was good tonight," Laird said. "He mixed in some good changeups when he needed to. I thought we mixed it up really well, and after that first hitter [homered], he kind of settled down a little bit. I think the electricity going through the stadium, he wants to step up in the spotlight."
The only time Laird worried about Verlander falling out of that rhythm was when the intensity crept into the batter's box. When A.J. Pierzynski swung and missed on a 1-0 changeup in the seventh inning, he gave some feedback. When Verlander sent Pierzynski down swinging at a 99-mph fastball three pitches later, he gave it back.
"He yelled two words that I could not repeat, either one of them," Verlander said. "So I had some words back at him once he struck out."
Laird quickly made a mound visit to get Verlander turned away. Pierzynski later said there was no malice, and that he has the utmost respect for him.
"The way [Max] Scherzer and Verlander pitched the last couple of nights make it tough on anybody," Pierzynski said. "You could throw the '27 Yankees out there and they're going to get them out."
The Tigers felt the same about Sale's late-breaking slider, which racked up strikeouts and groundouts alike. Boesch's game-tying drive to center, his first homer since July 22, was just the fourth ball out of the infield off Sale.
An inning later, after Omar Infante's single and a four-pitch walk to Miguel Cabrera, Sale struck out Prince Fielder with one of his best sliders of the night. He was set to do the same to Young, who had fanned twice already.
Young didn't see a fastball all night long. He saw sliders on nine of Sale's 13 pitches to him. The last, Leyland said, was "low, but not quite as low."
Young lined it over the left-field fence.
"Just made contact and got lucky," Young repeated. "You try to put a ball in play and hope for the best."
Young is batting 13-for-30 over his last eight games with four home runs and 11 RBIs."He's been locked in," Boesch said. "When you've got a hitter that gets locked in like that, he can carry a team and that's really what he's been doing."
Jose Valverde gave up a two-out run in the ninth before closing out his 28th save in 32 chances.