Tigers vs. Royals keys to series: Hit K.C. pitching early

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

It was always going to be intense and character-testing and pivotal in the race for AL Central supremacy, but the dynamics of this three-game series between the Tigers and Royals have shifted dramatically.

The Tigers, the three-time defending champions of the division, are now the chasers. After the Tigers dropped the first two games against the Giants this weekend, the Royals are guaranteed to be first place today when this series commences.

Instead of this series being an opportunity for the Tigers to re-establish their dominance, it is now more desperate. They need to win these games — and the three in Kansas City later this month — to stay in the race. They are no longer the running back in the open field trying to stiff arm the last would-be tackler in reach. They are now more like that last would-be tackler.

“We still have six games left against the team that's ahead of us,” Victor Martinez said. “It's not a secret, we're in a tough spot right now. But you know what, turn the page. Just take it day by day, game by game. Every pitch, every at-bat counts from here on. We'll see what happens.”

Here’s a look at two teams that have been going in different directions since the All-Star break.

Pitching matchups

Monday — RHP Justin Verlander (12-12, 4.80) vs. RHP Jeremy Guthrie (10-10, 4.31); Tuesday — RHP Max Scherzer (15-5, 3.25) vs. LHP Jason Vargas (11-7, 3.14); Wednesday — RHP Rick Porcello (15-10, 3.30) vs. RHP James Shields (13-7, 3.23).

The ones they missed

Tigers caught a break in the Royals rotation — sort of. They will miss Yordano Ventura, who has beaten them twice this year. They won’t see lefty Danny Duffy, either. Duffy has pitched well of late, and has a 2.12 ERA in three starts against the Tigers this season, though he’s lost all three decisions. He left his start after one pitch Saturday with a sore shoulder.

Feast or famine

The reason the Tigers are as close as they are is they have won nine of the 13 games against the Royals. But it’s been an odd sort of dominance. The Tigers are 3-3 vs. Royals at Comerica, but their run differential in those six games is minus-8. The Tigers are 6-1 at Kauffman Stadium with a run differential of plus-32. Go figure.

How’d we get here?

On Aug. 5, after a rousing 4-3 win over the Yankees in the Bronx, the Tigers had a 4½-game lead over the Royals. They proceeded to go 15-17 since (entering Sunday). The Royals, since Aug. 5, are 20-9.

Six-inning game

The Tigers need to get their work done early because, like the rest of baseball, they have not been able to scratch the back end of the Royals’ bullpen. Combined, Kelvin Herrera (seventh inning), Wade Davis (eighth) and closer Greg Holland have allowed just one run to the Tigers in 141/3 innings. They are 4 for 19 against Herrera, 1 for 17 against Davis (who hasn’t given up a run since June 25) and 3 for 12 against Holland.

Best in the business

Here is further statistical evidence of the shutdown capability of Herrera-Davis-Holland: Before Sunday, the Royals were 56-3 when leading after six innings, 63-1 when leading after seven and 69-1 when leading after eight. Combined, the trio has struck out 224 batters in 178 innings with an ERA of 1.22 and a WHIP of 0.970. Davis, just to belabor the point, hasn’t given up a run since June 25, a span of 52 innings. Holland, though, was unavailable Friday and Saturday because of tight triceps.

Matchup advantage — Royals

The metrics show the Tigers to be a less than speedy and athletic defensive team, particularly in the outfield. The metrics show the Royals to be the speediest and most athletic offensive team, particularly in terms of hitting the ball in gaps, taking extra bases and stealing bases. With Jarrod Dyson (33 stolen bases), Alcides Escobar (27) and Lorenzo Cain (24) all in the top 10 in the American League, the Royals lead the majors with 130 stolen bases. Add to the mix September call-up Terrance Gore. The 5-7, 165-pound outfielder with 4.2 speed in the 40 stole 47 bases in the minors this season.

Matchup advantage — Tigers

The way things have gone lately, it may be their only advantage but the Tigers’ offense has had a fair amount of success against the three Royals starters they will face. Earlier this season they bounced Shields with a 12-hit, seven-run barrage in 61/3 innings. They put up 11 hits and seven runs off Vargas in five innings and knocked Guthrie out in four innings with eight hits and eight runs. The Tigers have a long history against both Shields and Guthrie — both have ERAs north of 4.00 (4.37 for Shields and 4.41 for Guthrie). Shields, though, has been unbeatable at Comerica (4-0, 2.64 in seven starts).

MVP candidate

Usually it’s the Tigers who boast the postseason award candidates in this series. Not this year.

Left fielder Alex Gordon has put himself into the MVP conversation this season. He is easily the best left fielder in the American League, as his seven Gold Gloves will attest.

His Wins Above Replacement is 5.8, which is seventh among position players in the majors. He’s doing it offensively, as well. Thirteen of his 19 home runs have either tied the score or put the Royals ahead.

To the rescue?

There is a chance the Tigers’ bullpen could get an infusion. Joakim Soria is scheduled to throw a simulated inning or two Monday. He could be activated for the last two games of the series. He’s been out with a left oblique strain since Aug. 10.

Suddenly slumping?

Going into Sunday’s game, the Royals were beginning to get a little edgy. Holland has been nursing a triceps injury. Duffy left his start Saturday with a shoulder problem. On top of that, the offense had gone quiet. They had scored four runs or less in their last eight games. It’s not who you play, it’s when you play them, right? Maybe the Tigers are catching the Royals at a good time.

Verlander vs. Butler

Royals designated hitter-first baseman Billy Butler is in the conversation for all-time Tiger killer, but he is the keynote speaker for all-time Verlander killer. While Verlander was winning Cy Young and MVP awards, Butler was thrashing him to the tune of a .430 batting average (34 for 79), .494 on-base average, .570 slugging percentage, 1.064 OPS (on base plus slugging). He is 4 for 11 with three 3 RBIs this year. In six games at Comerica this year, Butler is hitting .348.

Salvador Perez factor

Speaking of Tiger killers (and of elite, game-changing catchers), the Royals’ Salvador Perez has been the genesis of the Royals second-half surge. He comes in hitting .391 in six games at Comerica. In 12 games against the Tigers, he’s hitting .317.

Party poopers

The Royals have a history of spoiling the Tigers’ fun in September. They helped send the Tigers to the ill-fated Game 163 back in 2009 by winning five of six games against them in September. From 2006 through 2009, the Tigers were 6-15 against the Royals in September. They’ve done a little better since, going 16-12.