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DETROIT (AP) — The Detroit Tigers looked dormant with the bats until a pitch from Chicago's Chris Sale hit Victor Martinez around the back of his left shoulder.
Then tempers flared, the benches and bullpens emptied — and Sale's shutout didn't last much longer.
Martinez came around to score the tying run in the sixth inning, and after Sale came out of the game, Chicago's bullpen was no match for the Tigers. Detroit won 6-1 on Wednesday — and clinched a spot in the postseason when Seattle lost to Toronto.
The worst the Tigers can end up with now is a wild card. Detroit is trying for its fourth straight AL Central crown, and the Tigers took a two-game lead over second-place Kansas City, which lost at Cleveland. Detroit's magic number to clinch the division is three.
With one out in the sixth and Chicago up 1-0, Sale's first pitch to Martinez hit the Detroit slugger. Martinez walked slowly to first, and the two started jawing at each other. Sale appeared to point out toward center field in agitated fashion as Martinez went to first.
"They were claiming that someone with binoculars in center field was giving signs to Victor," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "I think it's a little weak that they would hit him. If they injure Victor there and we're in the playoff hunt, that's bad news. That just can't happen.
"He clearly did it on purpose. He made it obvious."
Sale didn't accuse the Tigers of stealing signs afterward, and he said he wasn't specifically gesturing toward center field.
"I was just throwing my arms up, like you do when you are upset," the left-hander said. "I wasn't really trying to control where they pointed."
Sale appeared to tip his hat toward the outfield in the third inning after striking out Martinez.
"There was a fan that was just wearing me out in the bullpen before the game, telling me that I wasn't any good, and telling me how much Victor was going to hit me," Sale said. "So that was just having some fun with him."
Justin Verlander (15-12) allowed a run in eight innings for Detroit.
Sale allowed a run and four hits in six innings. He struck out 10 and walked three, becoming his franchise's career leader with his 18th game of at least 10 strikeouts. Ed Walsh had 17.
But Chicago's slim lead slipped away after he hit Martinez.
"I think he just woke the whole team up," said Martinez, who is 15 of 29 for his career off Sale.
The benches and bullpens emptied, but order was quickly restored. J.D. Martinez followed with a double and Nick Castellanos hit a sacrifice fly to tie it at 1.
Ian Kinsler's RBI double the following inning off Javy Guerra (2-4) put Detroit ahead, and when Kinsler reached second, he put his hands up in front of his eyes, pantomiming someone looking through binoculars.
Miguel Cabrera added a sacrifice fly in the seventh. Detroit scored three runs in the eighth on a well-executed squeeze play by Andrew Romine and RBI singles by Rajai Davis and Kinsler.
Cabrera struck out four times, only the third time in his career that's happened and the first time since Sept. 17, 2010.
The brouhaha involving Sale and Martinez overshadowed another fine outing by Verlander, who allowed seven hits and struck out six.
Verlander (15-12) has not been at his best this year, but the former Cy Young Award winner has made it to the eighth inning in back-to-back starts.
"I think I was getting ahead of guys — good fastball control, good life on the fastball," Verlander said.
AMONG THE LEADERS
This was Sale's last start of the season, and he finishes with a 2.17 ERA, which will almost surely be good enough to win the American League ERA title. Seattle's Felix Hernandez is at 2.34.
White Sox: After the bench-clearing incident, Sale pitched the rest of the sixth before being pulled after 101 pitches. Manager Robin Ventura was already trying to ease the left-hander into the offseason. Sale finishes the year at 174 innings after missing a month early on with a muscle strain near his left elbow.
Tigers: Detroit RHP Anibal Sanchez (pectoral strain) still has not pitched since being activated from the disabled list before Tuesday's game. He's now part of the Tigers' bullpen but was not used Wednesday.
White Sox: After losing two of three to the Tigers, Chicago has another chance to play spoiler in a four-game series against the Royals. White Sox LHP Jose Quintana (9-10) faces Kansas City RHP James Shields (14-8) on Thursday night.
Tigers: Detroit hosts four games against Minnesota. Tigers RHP Max Scherzer (17-5) takes the mound against Twins RHP Trevor May (3-5) on Thursday night.