DETROIT — The juxtaposition was stark, the picture of two clubs trending in opposing directions.
Inside the Royals’ dugout, in the middle of the sixth inning of Monday’s 11-8 victory, the players traded high-fives and prepared for the latter innings of their eighth consecutive triumph. To the Tiger dugout shuffled Justin Verlander, the ace of his generation, humbled once again.
As Verlander made that lonely walk, an odd sound cascaded through Comerica Park, the home of the American League Central champions the previous three seasons. Detroit baseball fans had deemed his performance worthy of jeers.
The Royals, 37-32, inspired these catcalls. They moved to half a game behind the Tigers by thumping Verlander and beating the Tigers for the first time in six tries in 2014. The Royals cracked 12 hits and scored seven runs off him: Billy Butler roped a bases-clearing doubled in the fifth, and Omar Infante parked a three-run shot into the visitors’ bullpen in the next inning. As an exclamation point, the team dropped four runs on the Tigers’ bullpen in the seventh.
On May 28, the Tigers stood nine games over .500, and the Royals sat four games below that watermark. With a victory over Max Scherzer today, the Royals can move into first place. There is a reason Butler referred to this week as “the biggest series of the year.”
“This is where you can make up a lot of ground, when you’re playing the team that’s ahead of you,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said before the game. “It’s going to be fun. This group welcomes the challenge.”
Flying high after a sweep in Chicago, the Royals delivered a blow to the chin of this division’s overlords. In the first of four games here, Jason Vargas, 7-2 and 3.25 ERA, spun seven innings of two-run baseball and his teammates pummeled the opposition. The final score belied the actual proceedings. Rookie reliever Donnie Joseph allowed six runs in the ninth.
In Verlander, the Royals faced the personification of their wounded, prideful hosts. Verlander is the longest-tenured Tiger, a former MVP and a perennial candidate for the American League Cy Young Award. He is also caught in one of the worst stretches of his career.
In his previous six starts, Verlander yielded 35 runs in 37 2/3 innings, pitching to a 7.41 ERA and letting opponents post a .906 on-base plus slugging percentage against him. His fastball velocity has decreased, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio has dipped to a career-worst 1.72. The White Sox, the same club the Royals battered this last weekend, hung seven runs on him in his last outing.
All of this caused Yost to shrug before the game.
“The minute that you think a guy’s struggling, you’re going to get spanked,” he said. “So we don’t think like that.”
Verlander did not look reborn at the outset. His fastball hovered around 91 mph. He nearly beaned Salvador Perez with a wayward curveball in the second. He spiked Nori Aoki’s foot with a misplaced slider in the third. He gave up three singles in the fourth.
The Royals came up empty each time. Standing on second with one out in the second, Butler misjudged a fly ball from Lorenzo Cain. He broke for third, apparently unaware the ball was nestled into center fielder Austin Jackson’s glove. In the fourth, sandwiched between the base hits, he grounded into a double play.
As Verlander balanced on the tightrope, his teammates touched up Vargas. Rajai Davis belted a change-up for an RBI double in the third. Three singles, the last struck by Jackson, netted an additional run in the fourth.
To break through against Verlander, the Royals required some good fortune. They created an opportunity with a fifth-inning double by Alcides Escobar and a subsequent single from Aoki. Here, the team experienced some luck: Infante two-hopped an RBI single through the left side, and Hosmer spun a cue-shot infield single that loaded the bases.
Up came Butler. He entered the game hitting .432 against Verlander, the highest average of any hitter with at least 30 plate appearances against him.
In years past, Verlander could unleash a fastball in the triple digits. On Monday, he managed only a 94-mph version. The pitch hummed on the inner half, and Butler tattooed it. His drive cleared Jackson’s head in center field, and cleared the bases in the process.
Verlander stayed in the game for the sixth, a decision rookie manager Brad Ausmus would likely regret. The Royals placed men at the corners for Infante. Verlander challenged him with a 94-mph fastball. Infante answered the call.
The distance on his three-run drive elicited gasps from this crowd of 31,774. Silence followed. Only when Verlander exited the diamond did the fans unleash their disgust, stunned at the beating laid upon the former ace by the Royals.