June 15, 2014 at 8:51 pm

Tigers prep for first 'big' series of season against surging Royals

Detroit — Get ready for the first “big” series of the season.

It’s only June, but the Tigers and Kansas City Royals are about to embark on an intriguing four-game series in what’s become a tight Central Division race.

That huge lead the Tigers had several weeks ago?

It’s gone, what with their recent struggles and the Royals suddenly winning seven consecutive games.

The Tigers (36-29) lead the Royals (36-32) by only 1½ games.

“Certainly it’s an important series,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “I don’t know if I’d call it a ‘showdown.’ But it’s a big series against a team that’s played well lately.”

Thus far this season, the Tigers have dominated the season series, winning all five games.

But the Royals have won nine of their last 11 games while the Tigers have been slumping, and what had been a sizeable lead in the standings has shrunk accordingly.

But the Tigers have won two of their last three series, and have won three of their last four games. The starting pitching staff has regained its balance lately. The offense, though uneven, has shown the ability to have big games.

As long as they win series, and gain some consistency, they’ll take it.

“The best part about this was we won the series,” pitcher Rick Porcello said. “It’s a good feeling. We have to grind it out and find ways to win games.”

Father's Day present

New Tigers pitcher Blaine Hardy was able to produce quite a Father’s Day gift for his dad, Dave.

The Tigers purchased the contract of the left-handed Hardy from Triple A Toledo late Saturday and optioned right-hander Corey Knebel to the Mud Hens.

This was the first major league call-up for Hardy, 26, who’ll be used out of the bullpen.

“He sent me a text saying, ‘Best Father’s Day gift ever,’ ” said Hardy, who wasn’t sure if his dad was going to be able to fly in from Phoenix for the game.

Sure enough, Dad was able to secure a flight before Hardy was finished pulling flight information off his phone.

“To have him here today is going to be amazing,” Hardy said.

Hardy has pitched in 20 games in Toledo, including six starts, with a 3-2 record and a 2.68 ERA. He struck out 53 hitters in 47 innings.

“That’s baseball,” Hardy said of his struggle to get to the big leagues. “You have to stick with it and that’s what I’ve tried to do, keep playing and get opportunities, and here I am.”

With Kansas City and Cleveland ahead on the schedule, two lineups stacked with left-handed hitters, manager Brad Ausmus felt the move was necessary.

Knebel appeared in six games, allowing eight hits and five runs over 623 innings with three walks and eight strikeouts.

The Tigers felt Knebel simply needed to pitch on a more regular basis.

“He didn’t do anything wrong,” Ausmus said. “For him, it’s better to pitch. He’s not a finished product, being out of a college for a year. He just needs to pitch on a regular basis.”

Knebel agreed with the decision and learned something about major league hitters.

“Up here, the hitters have a much better eye,” Knebel said. “They’re not going to swing at balls out of the strike zone. I might have thrown a lot of balls that were just right off the plate and they see that, they know it’s a ball.”

Ilitch update

Owner Mike Ilitch attended Sunday’s game.

Denise Ilitch told Channel 62’s “Michigan Matters” host Carol Cain her father is “doing great.”

“Well, Dad gets to do what he wants and guess what dad wants to do on Father’s Day?” she said. “He wants to go to the ballgame. So happy Father’s Day, Dad. We’re going to be at the ballgame with the whole family — it’s going to be nice.”

The majority of the Tigers players had their families in attendance Sunday, and many took pictures on the field after the game.

Around the horn

Miguel Cabrera singled in the third inning to extend his hitting streak to nine games.

… Victor Martinez reached base all four times Sunday and has reached safely in his last six plate appearances.

… Since June 5, Nick Castellanos is hitting .436 (17-for-39) with five runs scored, five doubles, a home run, and four RBIs in a span of 10 games.

… Sunday’s crowd of 41,462 was the ninth sellout of the season. The weekend’s attendance of 122,771 was the largest for a three-game series this season.

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

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On deck: Royals

Series:Four games, Monday-Thursday, Comerica Park, Detroit

First pitch: 7:08 p.m. Monay-Tuesday; 1:08 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday

TV/radio: All games on FSD/1270, 97.1.

Probables: Monday — LHP Jason Vargas (6-2, 3.30) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (6-6, 4.61); Tuesday — RHP Yordano Ventura (4-5, 3.20) vs. RHP Max Scherzer (8-2, 3.05); Wednesday — RHP Jeremy Guthrie (3-6, 4.04) vs. LHP Drew Smyly (3-5, 3.58); Thursday — LHP Danny Duffy (4-5, 2.83) vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez (3-2, 2.44).

Scouting report

Vargas: Defeated Indians Tuesday, allowing six hits and three runs over seven innings. Has four consecutive quality starts, allowing seven earned runs over 28 innings.

Verlander:Has allowed at least five runs in five of his last six starts. Verlander’s ERA has increased from 2.67 to 4.61 during the stretch. Allowed eight hits and seven runs Wednesday against Chicago.

Torii Hunter singles to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News