August 16, 2013 at 2:16 am

John Niyo

Starting pitching is Tigers' trump card in AL Central race

Detroit — Luckily for the Tigers, this is neither a sprint nor a marathon.

It’s not even a footrace — it’s an arms race, like it usually is in this game — and that is wonderful news for the season-ticket holders who started snapping up playoff tickets Thursday.

Backed by another stellar outing from Anibal Sanchez, and in spite of some awful baserunning, the Tigers made another statement Thursday night. They beat back the Kansas City Royals, 4-1, before a crowd of 37,872 at Comerica Park, offering their latest assertion about the fate of the Central Division race in the American League: It’s not over yet, but it might be soon.

The Tigers extended their division lead to 6˝ games over Cleveland and 8˝ over Kansas City, an upstart bunch that’s in town for a rare five-game series and in the playoff hunt in mid-August for the first time in seemingly forever.

But the Royals, who’d gone 19-5 after the All-Star break starting with a series against Detroit, have now lost three in a row — including a pair to the floundering Marlins — while scoring just three total runs the last three days.

And the Tigers, who’ve won 10 in a row at home to improve to 38-19 at Comerica Park this season, are hardly the cure for that.

Not with this starting rotation, anyway.

Mound leaders

Thursday night, it was Sanchez slamming the door, something he does so quietly and so calmly that few seem to notice he has been the Tigers’ second-best starter this season.

He was sluggish early in this one, needing 30 pitches to escape the first inning with only a 1-0 deficit amid some control problems. Yet somehow Sanchez managed to pitch into the eighth, leaving to a standing ovation with a 4-1 lead, allowing seven hits and just that lone run in 713 innings. He struck out five, walked one and lowered his ERA to a tidy 2.50 – third-best in the AL.

“He settled in and pitched terrific,” said manager Jim Leyland, who was thrilled not to have to go to his bullpen early with a scheduled doubleheader today. “He really got it going, he was pinpoint, he was getting ahead of hitters. We needed some innings, and we got ’em.”

They’ve got ’em, all right. They’ve got a handful of them, and it’s why they’ve got a pretty strong grip on a postseason berth right now, in spite of their various ailments: A bum leg here, a concussion there, and not enough defensive replacements to fill in everywhere.

The Tigers’ starters lead the AL with a 3.40 ERA — nearly a half-run better than the second-place Royals — and, in a more-telling statistic, with a league-low opponents’ OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .661. Or to put it another way, the Tigers’ starting rotation turns the rest of the league into the Houston Astros.

They’re also tops in wins — Sanchez racked up No. 60 on Thursday night, 10 more than Tampa Bay — as well as innings pitched and strikeouts.

But that’s what we’ve come to expect from this team. And it’s what they’ve come to rely on themselves, covering for some shaky middle relief and an offense that chugs along from station to station.

“That’s our job,” Sanchez said, “to go out there and give us a chance to win every night.”

Basepath gaffes

Thursday night, it took a little fine-tuning on the fly from Sanchez. But after that 30-pitch first inning, pitching coach Jeff Jones told him he was too slow with his delivery. And after a quick check of the video to see what he meant, Sanchez started making quicker work of the Royals.

“I made my adjustments,” he said, “and I felt good after that.”

He felt better after watching Prince Fielder’s two-run shot in the bottom of the first inning, obviously. It was Fielder’s first home run since July 24, his second since the All-Star break and only his third at Comerica Park since May 10.

But an even better sight might have been the 4-for-4 night for Andy Dirks. He did it from the leadoff spot Thursday, subbing for Austin Jackson, who got the night off. But a late-season surge from Dirks could do wonders for the bottom of the Tigers’ batting order down the stretch, with no Jhonny Peralta in the No. 6 hole and no guarantees about the healthy return of Alex Avila, who’s still not cleared to resume activity after his latest concussion.

As baseline tests go, by the way, Thursday night was a failure for his teammates, who probably ran themselves out of at least a run or two.

In the third inning, Dirks and Torii Hunter managed to hand the Royals a fielder’s choice double play (1-4-5-3 if you’re keeping score) with Miguel Cabrera, the game’s most feared hitter, in the on-deck circle. And then in the sixth, catcher Brayan Pena turned a one-out single into a 9-6-3-6-3 rundown with a wide turn at first base, followed by a sheepish apology in the dugout.

“Not too good tonight,” said Leyland, able to joke about it after a win. “A little shaky. A little wobbly.”

He was talking about his team’s legs, of course. Not its arms.

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Anibal Sanchez (11-7) is one member of the Tigers rotation, which boasts a premium cast. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News