KANSAS CITY, Mo. —The hottest pitcher in the American League rolled through Kansas City on Sunday, and, whew, did he bring the heat.
Now, a lack of situational hitting — not to mention a baserunning gamble gone wrong in the ninth — also played a part in the Royals' 2-1 loss to Detroit before a crowd of 18,373 at Kauffman Stadium.
But make no mistake about it, it was right-hander Justin Verlander and his dazzling array of pitches that deserve most of the credit for sending the free-falling Royals into the all-star break with their third loss in four games.
"The few (balls) we hit hard, we hit right at people," said Royals manager Ned Yost, whose club dropped to 37-54 with the loss. "(Verlander) does a real good job of pitching backwards, using his offspeed stuff effectively so you can't sit on one pitch."
Verlander mixed in a changeup, slider and a curve with a fastball that often reached or exceeded the temperature (which vacillated between 95 and 98 degrees) to keep the Royals off-balance. He also pounded the strike zone with regularity — 82 of his 119 pitches were strikes — basically daring the Royals to make him pay for being around the zone so much. And for most of the game, they couldn't.
Verlander seemed to be on cruise control, as he outdueled Royals starter Jeff Francis — who allowed only two runs and four hits in six innings — by allowing no runs and four hits while striking out nine over the first seven innings.
But the tide started to turn in the eighth, when Alcides Escobar and Chris Getz got back-to-back singles that put runners on first and third with one out.
Verlander had thrown well over 100 pitches at that point, but with the Tigers leading 2-0, manager Jim Leyland left him in anyway, a move that seemed prudent once Verlander retired the next batter and got Alex Gordon to hit a soft ground ball to third that should have ended the inning.
Only, it didn't. And the Royals can thank third baseman Brandon Inge for that, as his throwing error not only allowed a run to score and put runners on first and third with two outs, but also served as the last incentive Leyland needed to pull Verlander with Billy Butler at the plate.
"He's the one guy that's had pretty good success against Verlander," Leyland said. "At the point in the game, tired and everything, I wasn't going to let him face him."
Verlander's replacement, reliever Joaquin Benoit, promptly came in and battled back from a 2-0 count to strike out Butler and escape the jam.
"That was the biggest out of the game," Leyland said.
Perhaps, but an honorable mention has to go to the one rookie first baseball Eric Hosmer ran himself into in the ninth inning. His leadoff double in the ninth put the tying run at second, but after Detroit closer Jose Valverde struck out Jeff Francoeur, Hosmer attempted to steal third and ended up being gunned down by catcher Alex Avila. Mike Moustakas then grounded out to end the game.
"We've got two signs — a must steal and (one where) if you get a jump, go," said Yost, who called the latter. "Valverde is 1.75, 1.80 (seconds) to the plate... with the bottom of the order coming up, you're trying to score the trying run without the benefit of another hit or two to tie the ballgame."
Yost said it looked like Inge blocked the bag, but Hosmer insisted after the game he beat the throw and should have been called safe.
"I know it got in there," Hosmer said. "It's a tough call, a bang-bang play... it's a shame the game ended like that."
In the end, the loss overshadowed a sterling outing for Francis, the lefty who almost matched Verlander pitch-for-pitch — he only allowed RBI singles to Brennan Boesch in the fourth and Magglio Ordonez in the six — and still dropped to 3-10 on the season.
Of course, this result isn't totally surprising, given Verlander's recent dominance. He currently sports a 12-4 record and a 2.15 ERA, but over his previous eight starts, he's posted a preposterous a 0.84 ERA, a figure that certainly went down after his latest effort.
"It's the kind of game you expect him to throw," Francis said. "We had our chances to score, but he's a tough pitcher — you can't expect to come through each time."
Still, that reality didn't soothe the psyche of a team that's already experienced a few too many close-but-no-cigar losses like this one all season. All the Royals can hope for now is that the three-day break will clear their heads and allow them to turn the page on a disappointing first half.
"We felt we've had a lot of games we could have won and we haven't," Francis said while his teammates slowly filed out of the clubhouse. "But we still have a half a year to turn things around."