DETROIT — What looms, potentially anyway, as the most significant August series for the Royals in the last two decades started Thursday with the soft thud of a 4-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park.
Prince Fielder erased the Royals’ early 1-0 lead with a two-run homer in the first inning, and right-hander Anibal Sanchez took it from there in delivering 7 1/3 precision innings.
Four games remain in this rare five-game series, but the Royals (62-57) are now 8 1/2 games behind first-place Detroit (71-49) in the American League Central Division. So the math is getting a little daunting.
The wild-card arithmetic is going south, too, after victories Thursday by Tampa Bay and Oakland. The Royals now trail the Rays by six games and A’s by 5 1/2 games for the AL’s two wild-card spots.
“This is definitely not the start we wanted to get off to,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said, “but there are four more big ones. It’s a quick turnaround (Friday). Just get back here first thing in the morning and try to even it out.”
Sanchez (11-7) wobbled through a 30-pitch first inning before shifting into lockdown mode that relied heavily on a killer change-up. He departed after Hosmer’s one-out single in the eighth.
“He started mixing up his pitches a lot more the second and third time through,” left fielder Alex Gordon said. “When he’s throwing his stuff for strikes, he’s a good pitcher. We knew that.”
Bruce Rondon replaced Sanchez and got the final two outs in the eighth inning before Joaquin Benoit pitched the ninth for his 16th save in 16 chances.
Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie (12-9) gave up a career-high 13 hits but limited the damage to four runs in his seven innings. He also threw just 104 pitches despite all of those knocks.
The damage came on Fielder’s homer in the first, and RBI singles in the fifth inning by Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera.
“Aside from the home-run pitch,” Guthrie said, “we had a chance. Eliminate that one, the game is a little bit different.”
The Tigers ran themselves into some outs on the bases, but four runs were sufficient to send the Royals into Friday’s day/night doubleheader on their first three-game losing streak since the All-Star break.
And the Royals face Justin Verlander in the matinee.
The Royals opened the game with singles by Chris Getz and Hosmer, but Billy Butler grounded into a double play. Gordon delivered a two-out RBI single to right.
Sanchez then walked Salvy Perez before ending a 30-pitch inning by retiring Justin Maxwell on a soft liner to third. Thereafter, Sanchez never again permitted more than one runner to reach base in any inning.
“We had Sanchez early,” manager Ned Yost said. “We got his pitch count up in the first two innings. A clutch hit by Gordy in the first inning to give us the lead. But we just couldn’t do anything with him after that.”
The Tigers, meanwhile, answered with two runs in their first on a two-out homer from Fielder after former Wichita State star Andy Dirks began a four-hit night with a leadoff single.
Fielder’s blast was the 24th homer against Guthrie in 25 starts.
“It was a slider,” Guthrie said, “and I needed it to be a little more backdoor. Obviously, down would have helped as well. It caught a lot of plate.”
Newcomer Emilio Bonifacio opened the Royals’ second with a single and stole second, but Alcides Escobar lined out to third, Jarrod Dyson grounded to short and Getz grounded to second.
Guthrie worked around Dirks’ leadoff double in the third by turning Hunter’s hopper to the mound into a double play.
Dirks got trapped between second and third before Bonifacio applied tag and threw to first to get Hunter, who had rounded too far.
The Royals got a one-out double in the fourth from Maxwell, who went to third on Bonifacio’s grounder to first. Escobar ended the inning by grounding out to third.
Getz’s one-out single and two-out steal put the tying run at second in the fifth inning, but Butler struck out on a 2-2 change-up.
Detroit stretched its lead to 4-1 later in the fifth.
Brayan Peña led off with a single but was thrown out at second on Jose Iglesis’ attempted sacrifice. Dirks followed with his third hit of the game on a double past first that moved Iglesis to third.
Hunter grounded an RBI single up the middle through a shortened infield before Cabrera blooped an RBI single to center in front of a deep-playing Dyson, who initially broke back but still had a chance for the catch.
“I screwed that play up big time,” Dyson said. “Even when I came in, I thought, ‘All right, it’s going to get out here to me.’ That’s why I stutter-stepped again. And it never did.
“That’s a ball that’s got to be caught. No doubt about it.”
The Tigers, again, ran themselves out of a threat for more runs in the sixth after Omar Infante and Peña hit successive one-out singles. Peña rounded wide at first on a single to right and got trapped in a rundown for an out.
Sloppy, but it didn’t matter. Now, it’s on to Friday’s doubleheader, which is the result of a rainout on the Royals’ previous visit in April.
“Every game is important right now,” Gordon said, “especially (against teams) in the Central Division. We’ve got to forget about this and bounce back. We have the quick turnaround. Hopefully, (Friday) is a better day.”