The end for the Royals, in some ways, was far worse than the start Thursday afternoon in a 5-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park.
And that’s saying something.
The Royals, for the first seven innings, were comatose — overmatched by Detroit starter Doug Fister after falling into an early four-run hole thanks largely to four errors in the first two innings.
Then, somehow, incredibly, the Royals erased it all by scoring three runs in the eighth inning — when they knocked out Fister — and another in the ninth when Billy Butler tied the game with a leadoff homer against Joaquin Benoit.
A remarkable comeback beckoned … and then backed away. More accurately, it tumbled away with backup catcher Brayan Peña was unable to make a throw home after a tough diving stop on a bases-loaded grounder to first base with one out.
“My first thought was to come up and throw home,” Peña said. “But the batter (Alex Avila) was in my way. He was coming right at me. I had to no shot.”
Yep, Peña was at first base. We’ll get to that.
Prince Fielder opened the ninth inning with a hopper that a leaping Tim Collins tipped, which likely kept shortstop Tony Abreu from making a play. (Why was Abreu at short? We’ll get to that, too.)
When Abreu’s bare-handed effort failed, the ball rolled into short center — and Fielder hustled his way to a double. That prompted an intentional walk to Delmon Young before the Tigers inserted Ramon Santiago as a pinch-hitter for Andy Dirks.
Santiago’s attempted sacrifice failed when Collins fielded the ball and threw to third for the force. That brought Don Kelly into the game as a pinch-runner at second for Young, while the Royals called on Kelvin Herrera.
Jhonny Peralta sent a potential double-play grounder to third baseman Mike Moustakas, who booted it for his third error of the game after going 47 games without a misplay. It was also the Royals’ fifth of the game.
All runners were safe.
“No excuses for that,” Moustakas said. “That’s a play that has to be made, especially in that situation. Kelvin does a great job of getting a ground ball to me, and I just missed it. Kelvin made the pitch.”
Herrera went to a full count on Avila, who yanked a sharp grounder to Peña, who was playing first because of an injury earlier in the game to Eric Hosmer.
Peña made a diving stop, saw he was blocked from throwing home, tagged first and looked elsewhere for a play. There was none. Kelly scored the winning run. So it ended.
“We have to be able to win tight games like this,” Avila said. “It’s the only way we’re going to be able to get in the playoffs and go far in the playoffs.”
Start with the start: The Royals had not committed more than three errors in a game all season. They committed three in the first inning. A fourth error followed in a two-run second inning. That quickly, Detroit led 4-0.
And the four errors were committed by three of the Royals’ top defensive performers: two Moustakas on the same play; one by Gold Glove left fielder Alex Gordon; and one by shortstop supreme Alcides Escobar.
That was only the start.
Fister then set an American League record by striking out nine straight hitters — one roll through the entire lineup — from Salvy Perez for the last out in the fourth through Butler for the second out in the seventh.
“He was throwing everything,” Butler said. “Fastball, sinker, slider and curveball. I’ve never seen him throw so many off-speed pitches. He usually throws 50-some fastballs for every three curveballs and two sliders.
“But he was throwing a lot of off-speed pitches today, and he was commanding them all.”
Perez ended the streak with a grounder to short. The major-league record is 10 straight strikeouts by Tom Seaver of the Mets on April 22, 1970, in a 19-strikeout effort against San Diego.
“Honestly, I had no idea,” Fister said. “(Fielder) was yelling at me to step off during the inning (when the crowd of 33,019 rose to a standing ovation), and I kind of looked at him. He just said, ‘Hey, step off.’
“I looked at him, and he kept looking at me, and he said, ‘Aw, I’ll tell you later.’”
By the way, Fister also carried a one-hitter into the eighth inning — the only hit was a dribbler by Perez up the middle with one out in the second inning. The nine straight strikeouts broke the AL record shared by Nolan Ryan (twice), Ron Davis, Roger Clemens and Blake Stein.
(Yes, that Blake Stein; he did it on June 17, 2001, at Milwaukee — in a 5-2 loss.)
All that, and the Royals lost Hosmer and Escobar on diving plays.
Hosmer suffered a strained right shoulder while diving for Quintin Berry’s two-run triple in the second inning. Hosmer will be reevaluated prior to tonight’s game at Cleveland.
Escobar bruised his right shoulder in the seventh inning while diving for Jhonny Peralta’s soft fly into short center field. Neither injury appears serious, although both players — particularly Hosmer — are likely to miss a few games.
So through seven innings … pretty grim.
It all changed when Fister faltered in the eighth. First, he lost his shutout on successive doubles by Moustakas and Jeff Francoeur. Two infield grounders produced another run.
David Lough served a two-out single into center, took second on a passed ball and scored when Abreu, batting for Escobar, yanked a single into right. That quickly, the lead was down to one run.
Phil Coke replaced Fister for a left-on-left matchup against Gordon, who grounded out to second. Benoit started the ninth and surrendered Butler’s homer, which stuck Fister with a no-decision and, ultimately, allowed Benoit, 5-3, to vulture the victory.
By winning, Detroit completed a four-game sweep and remained alone atop the American League Central Division. The Tigers started the day with a one-game lead over Chicago, which played Tampa Bay in a night game.
The Royals’ rally enabled starter Luis Mendoza to also gain a no-decision after limiting the Tigers to two earned runs in seven innings. Collins, 5-4, was the loser.
“Mendy threw the heck out of the ball all day for us,” Moustakas said, “and it’s unfortunate that my three errors cost us (three) runs today.
“It’s a tough one for us to swallow, especially when we pitch the way we did, and especially when Billy gets a big hit in the top of the ninth and there’s a lot of momentum our way. It’s just something that can’t happen.”
Only it did.