DETROIT — The immediate vibe coming from the Royals is struggling left-hander Jonathan Sánchez showed enough Friday night in a 4-2 loss to the Detroit Tigers to remain in the rotation after the All-Star break.
“A lot better,” manager Ned Yost affirmed. “His strike-to-ball ratio was much better. His command was much better. He made two mistakes, really, that hurt him.… Besides that, he kept us in the game. It’s something to build off of, I hope.”
Sánchez (1-5) still hasn’t won in 10 starts since April 8 and, while still surrendered four runs in 5 2/3 innings, there were some hopeful signs.
“I wasn’t getting the results (I wanted),” he said, “but I think I did better than last time. I was more on the plate. I’ve just got to go into the second half and do what I have to do.”
Even so, the quality of his stuff remains suspect.
Consider: The game was tied at 2-2 in the sixth inning when Sánchez offered an 87-mph, four-seam fastball that was up on a 3-1 count to Delmon Young with Prince Fielder on first base after a leadoff single.
Young crushed it for a two-run homer that, effectively, decided the game.
“It was a ball,” Sánchez said, “and he was cheating on a fastball. And he got it. It was a high fastball, and he got it. It was a mistake.”
Yost cited the pitch’s location as the problem; not the lack of velocity – even though Sánchez once routinely pumped that fastball at 93-94 mph.
“It was up,” Yost said. “He threw numerous 87-mph four-seamers that didn’t get hit out of the park. If he keeps the ball down, he was getting outs and throwing strikes with it. He just happened to get one up.”
Sánchez was likely pitching to hold his job in the rotation after entering the game with a 6.80 ERA. And while it barely dipped, to 6.75, it’s not as if the Royals are overloaded with alternatives.
And he did seem to find a groove at times.
“He was much better,” said Brayan Peña, who also caught Sánchez’s troubling start in his previous outing at Minnesota.
“He was attacking and throwing more strikes. That pitch to Delmon Young, it was 3-1 and a fastball up. He’s a good hitter. Good hitters don’t miss those kinds of pitches. Other than that, I think (Sánchez) was pretty good. He was mixing pretty good today.”
Evaluating Sánchez wasn’t Friday’s only issue. The Royals’ hot-and-cold attack showed little heat for the second time this season against Detroit rookie lefty Drew Smyly, who struck out a career-high 10 and walked none in six innings.
And except for a brief hiccup in a two-run fifth, Smyly made it look easy.
“He’s a fastball-curveball guy,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said, “and he was just pounding the strike zone. A couple of us took some close pitches that could have gone either way, but that happens sometimes.
“I think he just got on a roll and was going good from the beginning.”
That makes two good rolls; Smyly (4-3) permitted just one unearned run over seven innings on April 17 in a 3-1 victory at Kauffman Stadium.
And consider this: Only two other pitchers since 2008 struck out 10 or more Royals without walking a batter: Smyly’s teammate Justin Verlander and Angels ace Jered Weaver. Pretty good company.
Brayan Villarreal and Phil Coke nursed Detroit’s two-run lead through the seventh before Joaquin Benoit and José Valverde closed out the victory. Valverde got his 16th save in 19 chances, and it pulled the Tigers back to .500 at 42-42.
The Royals fell to 37-45 and now find themselves 8½ games behind first-place Chicago in the American League Central Division. That matches their season’s biggest gap from the top.
Sánchez started with an ut-oh moment by going 3-0 on Austin Jackson before coming back to register a strikeout. That seemed to steady Sánchez, who had little further trouble in the first two innings.
The third was a different matter.
Ramon Santiago punched a one-out single to left before Jackson extended his hitting streak to a career-best 13 games by pulling a single through the left side.
Rookie Quintin Berry, in a left-on-left matchup, followed by yanking a two-run triple into the right-center gap for a 2-0 lead. It could have been worse, but Sánchez stranded Berry at third by retiring Miguel Cabrera and Fielder on grounders.
The Royals got a leadoff single by Billy Butler in the second inning and nothing more against Smyly until Mike Moustakas one-hopped the center-field fence for a one-out rulebook double in the fifth.
Peña delivered one run with a two-out double into the left-center gap, and Jason Bourgeois – he does hit lefties – tied the game with a single up the middle. Peña tested Jackson’s arm from short center and beat the throw easily.
The Royals threatened with two outs in the sixth after Butler’s slow grounder up the turned into a single when second baseman Ryan Raburn couldn’t make a clean pick-up.
Yuniesky Betancourt followed with a drive to deep left that Young played into a double. A faster runner than Butler likely scores, especially with two outs, but he held at third.
Smyly’s 2-2 pitch to Moustakas bounced away from catcher Alex Avila, but not far enough for Butler to score. Moustakas then ended the inning by grounding out to first.
Fielder opened the bottom of the inning with a single before Young homered.