DETROIT — What the Royals, facing Justin Verlander, needed Monday night from Luke Hochevar was the sort of outing he rarely delivers against the Detroit Tigers. What they got was more of the same.
It wasn’t close to good enough in a 6-2 loss at Comerica Park.
Hochevar’s 6.16 earned-run average against the Tigers is his highest against any division opponent. His worst outing in a season marked by seven starts of yielding at least seven runs came here on May 1 — nine runs and 12 hits in four innings in a 9-3 loss.
“My expectations are high,” Hochevar said. “Every time I take the mound, I expect to win the ballgame. I don’t think about losing at all. When it does happen, that’s when you get (upset).”
With few exceptions, the Tigers didn’t hit Hochevar hard.
“He threw the ball really well,” manager Ned Yost insisted. “He just didn’t have anything to show for it. Give them credit. They found holes. He gave up hits, but there weren’t many of the hard-hit variety.”
Hard-hit or not, Hochevar, 8-15, surrendered 12 hits and five earned runs in 71/3 innings. In short, he didn’t come close to matching Verlander — particularly when Verlander, 16-8, was typical Verlander: two runs in eight innings with eight strikeouts.
“Most pitchers have a game plan and a way they go after you,” said first baseman Eric Hosmer, who was hitless in four at-bats. “But it seems (Verlander) changes his plan every time. And he’s got great stuff to go with it. He was on top of his game tonight.”
The Tigers nicked Hochevar for two runs in the second inning, when Prince Fielder hit a leadoff homer; two more in a fifth inning that included a T-ball-esque, run-until-you’re-tagged-out moment; and single runs in the sixth and eighth.
It was plenty.
“I think we had good at-bats,” left fielder Alex Gordon said, “but, with a guy like (Verlander), sometimes he’s just on. He was throwing everything for a strike. We really never got into hitters’ counts.”
Verlander’s scariest moment came in the fifth inning; he tweaked his left shoulder when, with runners on first and third in a 2-1 game, he scrambled to corral a poor throw back to the mound by catcher Alex Avila.
After a quick on-field exam by medical personnel and a couple of test pitches, Verlander escaped the jam by striking out Jarrod Dyson and Alcides Escobar.
“Strike after strike after strike,” Yost said. “He didn’t come close to walking anybody. We had a chance to tie it in the fifth, but Verlander made some (high-) quality pitches there to get out of it.”
José Valverde pitched a scoreless ninth in closing out Verlander’s victory, which kept Detroit one game behind first-place Chicago in the American League Central. The White Sox rallied for a 5-4 victory over Cleveland.
The Tigers won despite numerous base-running outs, including a couple by speedy Austin Jackson. The first followed his leadoff single in the first inning after Dyson made a hard-charging catch on Quintin Berry’s soft fly into short center.
Dyson then tested his recovery from that sore lat muscle in his back by doubling Jackson off first. Dyson had been under orders not to extend himself on throws. He later threw out Jhonny Peralta’s bid to stretch a single into a double in the fifth inning.
“I thought I took it easy,” Dyson said. “I didn’t think the throws were that strong, but I didn’t expect two outfield assists tonight.”
No defense could help Hochevar on a 0-1 fastball to Fielder to start the Detroit second; Fielder sent it soaring deep into the right-field seats for his 28th homer and a 1-0 lead. Detroit added another run on Avila’s two-out RBI double.
“I went back and looked at those pitches,” Hochevar said. “They were the pitches I wanted to make, and they whacked some of them. The ball to Fielder. I tried to go in on him and got it in there – and he whacked it. Sometimes, that happens.”
The Royals got one run back on Gordon’s leadoff homer in the fourth – a drive to left on a 1-1 fastball.
Verlander worked around trouble in the fifth after Jeff Francoeur led off with a single on a grounder up the middle that crawled past Peralta. Francoeur went to third on Johnny Giavotella’s one-out bloop single into right.
Then came Verlander’s scare. After Dyson took a 1-0 pitch for a strike, Avila’s hand clipped umpire Bill Welke on the throw back to the mound. Verlander moved to corral the ball as it skittered along the ground and came up clutching his left shoulder.
Then strikeout, strikeout and on to the bottom of the inning — when the Tigers stretched their lead to 4-1 by scoring twice despite running into two more outs on the bases.
Peralta led off with a single but was thrown out by Dyson in trying to stretch it into a double. Hochevar then walked Avila, who moved to second on Omar Infante’s single to right.
Jackson yanked a double into right that scored Avila — although an accurate throw by Francoeur probably would have gotten Jackson. But the ball got past Escobar for an error that scored Infante. Jackson tried for third on the error but was thrown out by Gordon.
The Tigers stretched their lead to 5-1 in the sixth after Miguel Cabrera extended his hitting streak to 14 games with a leadoff single. Cabrera went to third on Delmon Young’s one-out single to right. Andy Dirks produced the run with a sacrifice fly.
Escobar’s leadoff double in the eighth turned into a run when Butler collected his 102nd RBI with a one-out grounder up the middle. Verlander ended his night’s work by inducing an inning-ending double play from Perez.
“They’re in a pennant chase,” Gordon said. “Maybe that fueled him a little more. He was throwing harder from the get-go than we’ve seen in the last couple of starts. So I’m sure there’s a lot of energy over there.
“But there’s energy here, too. We’re going to try to play them hard these next three games and make it a good series.”