The law of averages? How many times can one team stick it to Detroit’s Justin Verlander, even when he’s struggling through what, for him, is a so-so season?
The Royals, prior to Friday’s series opener, were already the first team in five years to pin three losses on Verlander in the same season. They had also won all five games this season the Tigers started Verlander.
That run ended Friday when the Tigers built a five-run lead in the middle innings against Bruce Chen and held on for a 6-3 victory over the Royals in the opener to a three-game weekend series at Comerica Park.
“They have two of the best hitters in the majors (in Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder),” Chen said. “You can’t make mistakes. You can’t leave the ball up. If you do, you’re going to pay.
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“Today, I didn’t make my pitches, and I paid for it. Hopefully, we don’t let this loss get in the way of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
This still wasn’t vintage Verlander; he yielded three runs and nine hits while throwing 111 pitches over 62/3 innings. This time, that was good enough.
“Exactly the same (guy),” manager Ned Yost said. “We’ve just out-pitched him (in previous games). We didn’t do that tonight. We had opportunities. We had the bases loaded in the eighth, and we couldn’t capitalize.”
The Royals loaded the bases in the eighth inning against relievers Drew Smyly and Jose Veras on two walks and a hit batsman before the Tigers summoned closer Joaquin Benoit, who struck out David Lough.
“I thought there were a couple of pitches that were questionable (strikes),” Lough said. “I really thought the first pitch was a little up.”
Benoit then worked around Alcides Escobar’s leadoff single in the ninth for his 19th save in 19 chances. Verlander improved to 13-11.
It was, of course, a costly loss in the Royals’ already long-shot postseason hopes. They dropped 31/2 games behind Tampa Bay for the American League’s final wild-card berth with 15 games remaining.
The Royals must also climb past New York, Cleveland and Baltimore to catch the Rays.
Chen, 7-3, finessed his way past the Tigers last Sunday at Kauffman Stadium but failed to survive the fifth inning in the quick rematch. His line showed six runs (five earned) and seven hits in 41/3 innings.
“They had a really good plan against me,” Chen said. “They were hacking early. I could have made some better pitches later in the game. ... It just (stinks).”
Chen’s biggest problem was a failure to handle Fielder, who hit a two-run, tie-breaking homer in the fourth inning before capping a three-run fifth with an RBI single.
“I threw a change-up,” Chen said, “and I left it out over the plate. He’s strong. He’s going to hit it hard if you leave it out over the plate.”
The Tigers jumped to a quick 1-0 lead after Austin Jackson lined Chen’s first pitch into the left-field corner. When Alex Gordon over-ran the ball for an error, Jackson wound up on third — double and an error.
It was Gordon’s first error of the year.
Torii Hunter’s grounder to deep short scored the run, and it took a fine play by Escobar to record the out at first.
The Royals pulled even in the fourth inning after Eric Hosmer’s one-out single. He went to second on Billy Butler’s grounder to third and scored when Salvy Perez drove a single over the head of left fielder Andy Dirks.
The Tigers answered immediately with two runs after Cabrera started their fourth with a double-gift double to right. First, Lough reached the ball and failed to catch it. Second, it was scored a double.
“It got up in the lights a little bit,” Lough said. “It seems like everything in the gap goes into the lights, and it just kind of went off my glove. I was there. I went down for it.”
Still, it probably should have been caught.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Yost said, “and I think he’ll tell you he should have made it, too. I mean, he went a long way for it. It would have been a nice play. But I still think that’s a play he can make.”
Fielder followed with a homer to right, and Detroit led 3-1.
“(Chen) tried to throw him a change-up down and away,” Yost said, “and it ended up coming back down and in — which is a pretty hot spot for (Fielder).”
The Royals got a two-out bunt single from Jarrod Dyson in the fifth when Cabrera touched the ball in fair ground up the third-base line. But Verlander picked off Dyson at first on a fourth straight throw after one pitch to Gordon.
“I got my lead (the final time) before he even got up on the bump,” Dyson said, “because he was picking so quick. I was thinking, when he turns back, I’m going to get my lead. I probably should have shortened it a little bit.”
Detroit broke open the game with a three-run fifth after Alex Avila led off with a walk. Jackson’s one-out drive into the left-center gap hopped the wall for a rulebook double that moved Avila to third.
When Hunter drove a single to right, Avila scored easily, but Lough had a play on Jackson with a good throw. When the ball went up the line, the Tigers led 5-1.
Hunter took second on the throw home, which prompted an intentional walk to Cabrera. When the Royals overshifted their infield, it left third uncovered — and Hunter stole the base.
Actually, it was worse than it first appeared.
The umpires ruled Chen balked before holding off on a throw to third, which moved Cabrera to second and negated the steal as Hunter was awarded third. When Fielder flicked a single into short right, the lead was 6-1 and the Royals replaced Chen with Francisely Bueno.
The Royals clawed back to within 6-3 by scoring twice the sixth on a two-out RBI single from Butler, who then scored from first on Perez’s double into the right-center gap.
They got no closer.