June 19, 2014 at 11:56 pm

Tigers 2, Royals 1

Tigers snap three-game skid, head to Cleveland for another big series

Detroit – It’s not a trip from the frying pan to the fire to go from a series in which first place was at stake to one in which second place could be.

But the Tigers will still feel some heat.

That said, they gave themselves an important sendoff to Cleveland on Thursday with a 2-1 victory over the division-leading Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park.

It was a huge game in that the Tigers got a superbly-pitched game from Anibal Sanchez (4-2) – but that they also took full advantage of it by salvaging the finale of their four-game series against the Royals.

The Tigers began the series in first place, though, and ended it in second.

It was also huge from the standpoint that Joe Nathan looked like the closer the Tigers envisioned him being when they signed him as a free agent.

Needing to climb from the abyss of a 13.50 ERA in his previous 10 appearances, Nathan struck out the side in the ninth for his 14th save – beginning with the third strike he snuck past Billy Butler.

“That looked like the Joe Nathan I’ve faced for years,” said Butler, “the one with a few hundred saves and all those All-Star Games.

“He’s had some tough moments in his career, but that looked like the same guy.”

With the victory, giving them a 10-20 record in their last 30 games, the Tigers ended Kansas City’s winning streak at 10 games – a surge that lifted the Royals from a fourth-place tie, and five games out, to being able to leave Detroit in first place by a half-game.

“It feels good, but we can’t just win one game,” said manager Brad Ausmus. “We need to win a bunch.”

After allowing 11 runs in each of the first two games of the series, the Tigers at least got back to the business of playing close games in the last two – losing 2-1 on Wednesday before prevailing by the same score.

With seven strong innings, Sanchez (4-2) won his second consecutive start. But there’s not been a game all season in which he’s imploded – or else his ERA wouldn’t be 2.33.

For the first time in his career, however, Sanchez didn’t strike out anyone – the contrast of all contrasts to the game last year in which he struck out 17 Atlanta Braves.

“He has the ability to make hitters miss the barrel,” Ausmus said. “They hit a lot of balls off the end and off their hands.

“So he didn’t get the swing and misses, but they also didn’t square up a ton of pitches on him.”

The Tigers didn’t fare all that well against Royals starter Danny Duffy (4-6), but struck for all three of their hits off him and both their runs in the fourth with the help of a leadoff single by Austin Jackson, followed by Miguel Cabrera’s run-scoring double.

What proved to be the difference, however, was J.D. Martinez’s two-out home run to right in the fourth, his third home run of the series.

Martinez entered the opener of the Royals series after Torii Hunter hurt a hamstring (from which Hunter hopes to return while the team is in Cleveland.)

But with a .400 batting average and eight RBI in his last eight games, it’s not going to be easy to leave Martinez’s name out of the lineup.

“With the way J.D. is swinging,” said Ausmus, “we’re going to have to find a way to get him in there.”

The Tigers didn’t fall behind in the first inning this time because of a ground ball caroming second base – as they did on Wednesday.

But they fell behind all the same.

Nori Aoki began the game with a double off Sanchez and was driven in two outs later by the first Butler’s two doubles.

Except for a second-and-third chance with two outs in the fifth and a sixth inning that might have been a problem had Nick Castellanois and Martinez not made good plays at third and in right, the Royals weren’t often heard from after that.

But the Tigers didn’t exactly spend the day circling the bases non-stop.

The biggest problem Duffy had with the Tigers before they scored twice in the fourth was an extended at-bat by Victor Martinez in the first.

On the 11th pitch to him, Martinez flied out to left, but Duffy had to wade through seven foul balls to get the out.

Duffy allowed the only home run of the game, though.

And it was the only home run, plus the win, plus the way Nathan pitched, and the way Sanchez pitched, that sent the Tigers off to Cleveland in a good mood.

Miguel Cabrera congratulates Joe Nathan after the win Thursday. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News