The Royals’ winning streak, which reversed the course of a drowning team, raised hope for the brightest baseball summer here in two decades and vaulted the club into first place in the American League Central, ended at the hands of Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez in a 2-1 loss on Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park.
For the first time since June 7, joy did not radiate through the Royals clubhouse after a game. Instead, the players picked at their post-game spread, packed their bags for a nine-game homestand and pondered how far they had come in these past two weeks.
“The streak’s over, but we’re still playing some tremendous baseball,” designated hitter Billy Butler said. “We won a lot of games in June. We knew we were going to go on a run. We’re going to go back home with a lot of confidence.”
The Royals (39-33) wrested the division lead from Detroit during the first three games here, but Sanchez prevented a sweep. He has inflicted pain on the Royals for three years now. In six starts against them, he has never given up more than one run in an outing. On Thursday, he terrorized the infield grass by inducing a flurry of groundballs. After allowing a first-inning run, Sanchez mowed down his guests for seven innings.
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His performance trumped another encouraging start from Danny Duffy, the Royals’ 25-year-old lefty. Duffy gave up only three hits, but a pair of extra-base ones in the fourth cost him the lead. He struck out five in seven innings.
Duffy (4-6, 2.80 ERA) started the first game of this streak, an 8-4 victory over the Yankees in which the outcome was decided after his departure. In his past four starts, he’s given up five earned runs in 25 2/3 innings. Manager Ned Yost could not hide his pleasure with his pitcher’s development.
“They keep asking you ‘Has Duffy arrived? Is Duffy there yet?’ ” Yost said. “After today, I’m like, OK, I think he’s there.” He added, “We’ve never seen the consistency that we’ve seen.”
During these past two outings, the team’s offense has quieted. They played on Thursday without their best hitter. Alex Gordon suffered from flu-like symptoms and sat out. The Royals never gained traction against Sanchez, who usually strikes out a batter an inning, but fanned none on Thursday.
“We hit some balls hard today that didn’t find holes,” Butler said. “That’s baseball. But we didn’t strike out any off of him, and that’s good. That’s a strikeout pitcher. We just didn’t find enough holes.”
But they did strike first. Nori Aoki whacked the game’s second pitch into the right-center gap for a double. Two batters later, Sanchez stuffed a slider in on Butler’s hands. Butler fought off the pitch and dumped it down the first-base line. He hustled into second base for a double, driving in his eighth run on this seven-game trip.
Heading into Thursday, the Royals had trailed for just one full inning on this road trip, the fourth inning in Monday’s victory over Justin Verlander. They fell behind again in the fourth on Thursday. Austin Jackson bounced the Tigers’ first hit of the game, and Miguel Cabrera crushed an RBI double to center.
Shortly after tying the game, Cabrera bumbled on the bases. Victor Martinez flied out to left, and Cabrera took a few steps toward third. Aoki pegged a throw toward the diamond, and Alcides Escobar soared through the air to grab it. Escobar placed a tag on Cabrera before he could step on the bag. The initial call was safe, but manager Ned Yost challenged it and was rewarded with an out.
“I knew he wasn’t going to run, so I threw a little closer to the bag,” Aoki said. “The throw went to the perfect spot.”
The sequence saved the Royals a run. For in the next at-bat, J.D. Martinez dug out a 94-mph fastball and drove it over the right-field fence. Called in to replace injured starting right fielder Torii Hunter, Martinez has vexed the Royals all week. Yost referred to him as “hotter than a pistol” on Wednesday, and his team paid the price a day later.
“It was down and in, really low, even out of the zone,” Duffy said. “And he went down and golfed it. It’s just one of those things that you have to stomach and tip your cap to.”
Sanchez continued to roll. The Royals couldn’t touch him, or the Tigers’ rickety bullpen. Detroit set-up man Joba Chamberlain caused Eric Hosmer to ground into a rally-crushing double play in the eighth. In the last inning, struggling closer Joe Nathan struck out the side.
So there was no jubilation in the clubhouse. The atmosphere was subdued, but far from distraught. The Royals remain in first place. Their streak is over. They hope another begins on Friday.
“We know what we can do,” Duffy said. “We know we can rattle off some wins. It’s been a lot of fun. We want to keep it fun, we want to keep it rolling like it is.”