June 16, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Red-hot Royals ready to take a swing at Tigers

Detroit — They were celebrating again, bounding across the field after a walk-off sacrifice fly. As dramatic finishes go, it wasn’t quite spine-tingling, but it was another glimpse at the Tigers we thought we knew.

They won a series by beating the Twins 4-3 on Sunday, and they did it with better starting pitching, a double-digit hit total and a couple gifts from Minnesota’s wobbly defense. The past three weeks have been excruciating for the Tigers, and the flaws haven’t disappeared while winning three of their past four.

But if they’re ready to stretch their legs and unleash their vaunted arms again, now would be a fine time to do it. At the risk of eliciting eye rolls, I’m anointing this four-game series starting tonight against the Royals as the first Big Showdown of the season. Silly to be declaring a showdown in June, I know, but this is the closest any division foe has gotten to the Tigers.

The Royals have been an alleged rising team for so long, they should legally change their name to the Rising Royals. Now here they are, winners of seven straight, just 1½ games behind the first-place Tigers (36-29). Kansas City has been mashing the ball and getting good pitching, a lethal combination the Tigers should’ve trademarked when they had a chance.

The early-season Good Tigers gave way to the Bad Tigers, and now there’s an inner battle for the team’s true identity, or something like that. As always, it will be decided by the starting pitchers, and after an awful stretch, they’re finding their way. Rick Porcello delivered the team’s fourth straight solid start, going seven innings against the Twins and buckling only once, in a three-run sixth.

“Well, we hope we’re getting back to what Detroit Tiger baseball is, which is the starting pitching going deep into games,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “We score runs, including some days with big offensive outputs, but the key is the pitching.”

Bullpen still struggling

Before anyone declares the end to any slump, we need to see a few more things. For instance, the smoldering bullpen has to replace its gas hose with a fire hose. Joe Nathan struggled again Sunday, giving up two singles before escaping a scoreless ninth on Ian Kinsler’s snare of a soft liner. The only reliever displaying consistent bite is Joba Chamberlain, and that has to change. Nathan wasn’t necessarily hit hard by the Twins, but he still doesn’t induce many swings and misses.

We also need to see if Justin Verlander can flash his ace capabilities again when he faces tough Royals lefty Jason Vargas tonight. All of the Tigers’ Big Three — Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez — will pitch in the series, and they’d rather not have to win games by themselves.

The Tigers fared poorly with runners in scoring position Sunday and had to grind it out, capped by Torii Hunter’s sprint to the plate on J.D. Martinez’s flyball to medium-depth center field. It wasn’t majestic, nor was the Tigers’ 12-9 victory the night before, when the bullpen tried to blow it. But it’s amazing how a few breaks and quality starts can stabilize a team and lift the mood.

“I loved today’s game, a great win for us,” Porcello said. “We got off to an early lead, I gave it back, we were down, then we climbed back. It was a fantastic win all the way around.”

Porcello has somewhat mirrored the Tigers — good early, not so good recently, scrapping to be good again. Same with the offense. Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera still supply most of the production, although the Tigers are getting more and more from their rookie infielders, Nick Castellanos and Eugenio Suarez. The key is whether they can shake awake Austin Jackson (5-for-46 with runners in scoring position) and get Hunter back to driving the ball.

In the meantime, you ride it out, because prognostications to the contrary, there might be a summer-long race in the Central after all. The distance between the Tigers and the last-place White Sox is a mere 5½ games, and the division combatants are like crabs in a bucket, clawing over each other to get a snap at the Tigers.

Players downplay series

The Rising Royals are here, and not to make you nervous, but they have a nasty good bullpen with closer Greg Holland. We can have fun with the Big Showdown moniker, but don’t expect the Tigers to join in.

“You can spin it any way you want,” Ausmus said. “It’s certainly an important series, 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. I’ll just leave it at that.”

If necessity is the mother of invention, the Tigers showed on Father’s Day that perseverance is the father of contention. The notion they’ll just pitch and mash their way to World Series contention has taken a hit, and now comes an opponent eager to take its swings.

“Every game we play in our division is very important, but it’s not the series of the year — AT ALL,” Hunter said. “If it was September, yes. Not in the middle of the season.”

OK, I get it. It’s a long way to September, and the Tigers expect showdowns then. Of course, they won’t have to worry as much if they take care of showdowns now.


Teammates swarm J.D. Martinez after his sacrifice fly scored Torii Hunter with the winning run in a 4-3 victory over the Twins on Sunday. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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